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As Notre Dame moves to a more like-minded fit, what is next for Big Ten and college hockey?

The Fighting Irish changed the college hockey landscape, but what happens next in the fall out says more about where it is at these days.

Matt Christians/SBN College Hockey

Despite making more sense than any other school, the words "Notre Dame joins the Big Ten" together are very strange to see together.

Seeing those words is like "man goes to Mars" or "Vikings win the Super Bowl." Sure, it could, in theory, happen. There's just too much evidence (and, in the case of the Vikings, years of heartbreak) to the contrary.

Notre Dame and the Big Ten have gone back and forth so many times, never ending with a result that mutually benefits both.

But it is happening. Partially. Notre Dame is now joining the Big Ten as an affiliate member for hockey beginning in 2017-18. The conference now has 7 members for the sport with speculating "who becomes team #8?" becoming the most intriguing question in a week where 16 teams will be trying over the weekend to reach the Frozen Four.

In the world of college hockey, Notre Dame - still one of those teams trying to go to Tampa, by the way - leaving the New England-based Hockey East could be the first domino of the second wave of college realignment.

Indiana-based Notre Dame returns to the Midwest with old CCHA rivals Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. It has played Minnesota each of the past four seasons (Gopher head coach Don Lucia played college hockey for Lefty Smith) and went to Hockey Valley this past season.

There is familiarity. Weird relationships aside, Notre Dame joining the Big Ten for men's hockey means the conference gets another school that fits its like-minded mantra. It's another big name, one that fits in on television and in branding across the country.

A seventh team means the conference has more wiggle room for the ups and downs teams face in the sport.

Six Big Ten teams has not been the rosy picture and sterling reputation the conference had wanted. Not every team is going to be successful every year. So far not being successful has been the way after it sent one team to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season. Fans, coaches, teams and the conference agree on that end.

Adding affiliate members seemed like a no-brainer once it became an option following lacrosse adding Johns Hopkins and adding Notre Dame, having made the NCAA Tournament 7 of the past 11 seasons, makes sense.

(Head coach Jeff Jackson and the Fighting Irish did endorse the Big Ten's age legislation that angered non-Power 5 schools.)

At the same time, the sport of college hockey remains regional. From a school name perspective, there was no bigger team in Hockey East than Notre Dame. From a regional perspective, let's just say Hockey East fans are more ecstatic about the Fighting Irish fighting elsewhere.







The East vs. West, big vs. little school mentality has not changed in spite of what modest proposals have been made by the Big Ten. College hockey seemingly beats to its own drum.

Maybe that's because how the coverage (or lack of) is set up still. As the digital world makes everything closer, in college hockey, people are pretty open in liking their neighborhoods small and keeping out outsiders. Teams from other regions are rarely seen on TV outside the NCAA Tournament. Not even the Beanpot is on national TV in the US. Many fans and writers are at the rink while other games are ongoing. The small number of fans for all sixty teams means the world is small.

Either way, it's in a way a throwback to how baseball had the National and American League separate for decades before interleague play. No one out West has seen Quinnipiac on TV this year. No one out East has seen Ferris State televised.

Getting Notre Dame is the only school that fits both regionally and like-minded.

The Fighting Irish and Big Ten have found a mutual benefit. In Notre Dame's official release travel was cited. Having six conference schools technically within bus range, or at worst, a shorter flight than Boston, solves that issue.

Jackson has built a recruiting pipeline with both Chicago and Minnesota - 8 players on this season's roster are Minnesota natives - that he now can showcase his team. Getting the chance to play there regularly is a boost.

Playing like-minded schools on national television thanks to home games on NBCSN and new BTN broadcasts also helps the team in theory. Those should help garner better ratings than the ~30K NBCSN has gotten. (The two highest rated Notre Dame games on NBCSN this year featured non-Hockey East schools Minnesota and Minnesota Duluth.)

It's that last part, broadcast exposure, being brought up in the release which is just as intriguing as travel. Other than the NCHC's CBS Sports Net deal (and possibly Arizona State on Pac-12 Network), only games featuring Big Ten teams will be nationally televised in 2017-18 barring a change. Without Notre Dame, does NBCSN keep the Hockey East tournament? Does Hockey East care if it does?

How this change affects the 60 team landscape is an interesting proposition.

Some schools may not be happy with its original dance partners. The WCHA stretches from Alaska to Alabama to Ohio, and Arizona State still needs a home. The Great Lakes region is a mishmash of teams in different conferences. Going back to 11 teams means an opening for an Eastern team in Hockey East, one better fitting, with another domino dropping in the other eastern conferences.

The bigger schools are teaming up more. The schools that want to be more regional are teaming up more. The divide between the camps continues to grow.

Notre Dame leaving the East, joining the Big Ten as an affiliate member is one fit combining the two. While there may not be another school on the horizon that the Big Ten is ready to announce, where the conference goes from here if it expands to eight teams will say something about where it views the divide.

Getting another Big Ten school to add ice hockey - a slow play for college hockey expansion - would be one thing. Going back to the big name well and adding Arizona State as an affiliate member would say the fit has more to do with getting all the big schools in college hockey outside of Boston College together.

Having an established non-Power 5 school, one in the regional footprint of the Midwest, would be bringing a bit of college hockey flavor to the national ideal the Big Ten appears to be shooting towards.

Whichever school answers the big question, the world of college hockey - both East and West - awaits to see how the dominoes fall now that affiliate membership is on the table.

A change had to be made from a group of six. Getting Notre Dame to be the unlikely yet fitting seventh team is a start. Right now it is hard to think that where's the Big Ten finishes.


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 --