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Finally A September With Stakes

Arizona State, Alaska, and Alaska-Anchorage among others face uncertainty during college hockey’s normal month of optimism.

Arizona State Matt Dewkett

When did wait and see start creeping into September?

It’s hard to remember a time like the past few weeks with so much uncertainty so close to the start of the season. Facing financial issues, the Alaska schools have begun to fight for their athletic lives. Ohio State entered the month the season begins without a women’s hockey head coach. (The Buckeyes did eventually hire one.)

Arizona State, once a shoo-in for any conference that had room, finds its hockey honeymoon over and still an independent after the NCHC decided to table expansion. The Sun Devils and college hockey went from feeling great about the answer to thoughts of repeating a pre-Hockey East UConn bubbling to the surface in a span of less than two years.

That does not happen this month. September normally exists as a month of optimism in the sport. This is a time of back to school notes when nothing has gone wrong. In the preseason 0-0 records drive all 60 teams to still have a chance to win the championship.

Scratch that. All 60 teams believe they are going to win the championship.

There’s a type of confidence that does not exist once the puck gets dropped. Memories of last April have had five months to fade. Injuries have healed. The problems which plagued last season have been solved in practice with the slate being as clear and crisp as preseason photo shoot sweaters.

Yet this year September feels a long way from just five or six months ago. Back then things made sense and solved on the surface. Notre Dame was going to the Big Ten, Arizona State had its place as the brightest belle at the ball, and one of those WCHA super ideas would work.

Now? Well Notre Dame will be going to the Big Ten. Afterwards things get messy.

The NCHC’s decision to stay at eight teams for now (at the expense of Minnesota State having to go back to its conference mates and bask in the awkwardness of the situation) put a stop to movement in the sport.

Up until then the pattern of late has been to work things from the top down. Realignment starts with the big schools. Each subsequent move works as a reaction to the previous one. And so on. And so on.

Instead, caution is being thrown into the wind. Waiting and seeing how the unconnected ASU and Alaska situations work out mean moves are being made individually by teams and conferences, from the bottom on up rather the other way around.

Now ASU has to address its reality rather than its promises. As dire as things currently look in Alaska - and facing your program’s mortality and thoughts that recruiting could be a futile experience is something no school should have to go through - the same is true with the Nanooks and Seawolves.

Others already have been. Atlantic Hockey became the last conference to finally move to a full 18 scholarships after the NCHC’s decision and uncertainty throughout several more leaves potential issues. Not coincidentally odd numbered Hockey East, meanwhile, has taken a wait and see approach.

It’s certainly a change. Two years ago every conference goes head over heels for Arizona State joining D1 hockey. (The WCHA put out a full court press at one point because it believed that was the only way to compete against two conferences waiting and seeing.) Everyone did at the time. Two big name programs pony up to play with the big boys in three years and a feeling persists where the good times will never end.

All this despite the memories of Alabama-Huntsville being in limbo being fresh. Wayne State dropping the sport entirely was not a distant memory either while the same ASU arena questions lingering today were put aside. Even as several schools face deficits in others sports, it felt like financial difficulties in D1 hockey were a thing of the past. Problems could be solved easily.

But that is just September optimism. Once the honeymoon ends and the details of an uncertain season-long grind begin, the veneer and confidence fade away.

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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter --