Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Big Ten Tsunami Watch

We've talked about the Big Ten rather obliquely off and on for the last year or so here at Without a Peer. First, we hinted that Penn State might be joining the Division I family. Then it happened. Then we told you to watch out that Seth Appert didn't slip out of town to become their coach. RPI locked him up for most of the rest of the decade (not that we're taking credit for that, of course).

The bottom line on the Big Ten, at least from the perspective of a well-established hockey program with a long history, right here and now in the summer of 2011, is that we, along with the entire college hockey world, needs to be ready for radical changes in the landscape not seen since the near-simultaneous formations of the ECAC and the WCHA in the early 1960s a half-century ago.

The most immediate changes, it must be underlined, probably won't be felt in Troy, not right away at least. The formation of the Big Ten hockey conference has the most immediate impact on the western leagues, where the existing five Big Ten hockey schools currently play: Minnesota and Wisconsin in the WCHA, Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State in the CCHA.

The WCHA will take a hit losing the Gophers and Badgers, to be sure, but they seem to be in a good position to weather the storm of the Big Ten, in part considering their overall strength, but also due to the rich history within: the remaining 10 teams have won a combined 20 NCAA championships (26 if you want to be a stickler and count Bemidji State's six crowns from D-II and D-III). They'll lose a bit of prestige with a pair of big time schools with 11 combined titles of their own, but they could manage. The WCHA survived for years with 10 teams, they could do it again.

The true question comes from the CCHA, which will see its already slightly diminished roster be cut even further, to eight teams, nearly all of which will be either Division II schools or Mid-American Conference schools. It is a difficult scenario for each of those remaining eight teams, all of whom will undoubtedly be searching for answers, especially Notre Dame and Miami, a pair of teams that have been on the cusp of the very top of the college hockey world in recent years.

It is that question that could ultimately have an impact on the three eastern conferences. Just what kind of impact is a topic of much debate, but it probably won't be any kind of wholesale change, especially for Hockey East and the ECAC... though it certainly could.

Over the next couple of weeks, be on the lookout for conference breakdowns by team or groups of teams that share a similar fate. Let's start off with the easiest conference to break down.

Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin: Collectively, the Big Ten. No questions here, they know what they're doing - in fact, it's because they know what they're doing that leads to all of this consternation in the first place. The only real question surrounding this group is whether they seek to bring in new blood, almost certainly via another Big Ten school if they do.

Expansion?
There aren't really too many options for expansion within existing programs. The Big Ten isn't just a D-I conference, they're a power conference - which means they aren't going to associate with schools from smaller conferences (to say nothing of associating with schools from outside of D-I). When you look around the rest of the college hockey world, there's only one program with even the outside possibility.

Notre Dame: The only geographically and historically close fit to the Big Ten is Notre Dame. The school typically competes against the Big Ten in a number of different sports, fits right into the geographic footprint between Pennsylvania and Nebraska in Indiana, and has frequently flirted with joining the Big Ten as a full member in all sports, even football. There simply is no other currently existing program with the possibility of joining the nascent conference. Ten years ago, it probably wouldn't have been possible given the state of the program, and today it's still probably highly unlikely, but the door is open at least a crack for the Irish, whereas it's shut tight for every other program out there.

Next: The mess in the CCHA.

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