Monday, June 20, 2011

Tsunami Watch: CCHA

In the words of Bob Dylan, "the times, they are a-changin'" and nowhere are the times changing more than in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.

A minor conference when it was created in the 1970s, the CCHA got a huge shot in the arm when Michigan and Michigan State joined the conference from the WCHA in 1981 and ever since, the league has been one of the major players on the national scene. But those schools, along with Ohio State, will be departing for the new Big Ten conference, and a league currently sitting at 11 programs will be down to eight, with two powerful programs that will almost certainly be looking for something more firm (and more prestigious) and six less powerful programs who face a difficult future.

It wasn't long ago that some were talking about the CCHA possibly being the first conference to stretch from coast to coast (from Alaska to New York), and that may yet be in the conference's future, but minus the Big Ten schools, there's an unsure future not only for many of the CCHA's D-II programs, but also for the conference itself.

Notre Dame: At the end of the day, the Fighting Irish are really the program most likely to be the one making the next move, and they are easily the program with the most options. Why? Because they're Notre Dame - the school with enough moxie when it comes to college athletics (specifically, college football) to command their own national television contract. As Adam Wodon has said, they're probably already looking around and realizing that without the Big 10 schools, they're in a conference with nothing but Mid-American Conference and D-II schools. That's not how the Fighting Irish roll.

If Notre Dame comes calling, what established conference in their right minds would turn them down? The two most likely destinations are the WCHA (where the Irish resided in the 1970s) and Hockey East (where an institutional rival in Boston College resides, not to mention that the league isn't totally geographically similar to the Big East's core). The WCHA is home of some large buildings, but Notre Dame's new digs will be big enough to fit in.

Expect the Fighting Irish to be the next team to make a decision on their future, probably within the next year. Will they look east? Will they look west? Or will they take a leading role in trying to attract new teams (and potentially, new programs) to the CCHA? The decision they make will likely set the rest of the carousel in motion.

Miami: Perhaps the single CCHA program with the most questions. They're quickly becoming one of the best programs in college hockey - like Notre Dame, missing only the national championship - but the uncertainty surrounding the CCHA could have lasting consequences on the Redhawks' immediate future. Consider Miami's position. They are, as soon as the Big Ten schools leave, one of two powers in a significantly weakened conference and, as we just mentioned, Notre Dame almost certainly isn't long for that weakened conference. What, then, is the solution?

The WCHA is unlikely to be interested in Miami for a couple of reasons. Their arena, while new (and, might I say, awesome), would be very small by their standards. It's also significantly outside of the league's footprint and, especially by comparison to Notre Dame, Miami doesn't bring with it much gravitas other than through their recently lofty position as a college hockey power.

Hockey East also probably wouldn't be terribly interested in Miami, even as a package with Notre Dame, given its status as a regional (yet powerful) conference. They might be willing to branch out for the Irish, but probably not so much for the Redhawks.

Miami's best route, therefore, is probably in bolstering the CCHA through adding additional programs - and yet, no matter what schools possibly get added, the Redhawks are still in the precarious position of being head and shoulders above the rest of the league. That might bode well for making the national tournament every year, but if the CCHA is significantly weakened, it might make for a tougher route to their goal of a national championship.

Bowling Green and Western Michigan: The other MAC schools, each with very different hockey histories but similar recent results. The Falcons won a national championship in 1984, but have had a rocky recent past, including a threat a few years back to have their program folded due to difficult economic times. The Broncos, meanwhile, have floundered for many years but are coming off a remarkable comeback season last year under their new coach despite the school's long-term commitment to the program slightly in question.

These are schools that, like Miami, are among in the top level Division I (as defined by the D-I split in college football), but unlike Miami are unattractive to other high end conferences - neither has a prayer of being invited to a currently existing league. They will certainly miss the effect that regular visits from Michigan and Michigan State have had on home turnout, and if the CCHA doesn't grow, they may find the quality (and stability) of their programs diminishing rapidly as time goes by, further imperiling the league and their own existence.

Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan: The CCHA's Division II schools in the Midwest. The latter two are also former national champions, with the Lakers enjoying a dynasty during the late 1980s and early 1990s. These programs have not been in trouble as BGSU and WMU have been, but they will be taking a big hit with the Big Ten schools leaving the conference. They are not currently in danger, but the longer the CCHA exists in a weakened state, the more their future in Division I could be in jeopardy. At the very least, their ability to field competitive teams could be in jeopardy.

NMU is a former WCHA program and they were rumored to be in the mix to jump back to the WCHA during its last expansion, a slot that eventually went to Nebraska-Omaha. They could try to spring back (maybe even with Notre Dame), but it's entirely possible that the WCHA ship has sailed. Ferris and LSSU have fewer reasonable options.

Alaska: The CCHA's lonely outpost in the Last Frontier. The Nanooks have had the appearance of being a serious outlier in the Great Lakes-centric CCHA since they joined the conference in 1995, but it has been a necessary matter for their program to be able to have a secure place in the college hockey world. It is difficult at best to schedule an independent schedule, and even more difficult to entice teams to come to Alaska, even with the schedule exemption that teams who do so receive (teams who travel to the 49th state don't have to count those games toward their schedule limit). So Alaska will also be looking to keep the CCHA soluble.

One thing that almost surely will not happen is a combination of the two Alaska schools into the same conference, whether that's the Nanooks moving the WCHA as has been suggested or Alaska-Anchorage moving to the CCHA (where it has been argued they could be more competitive). Both schools cherish the ability to play each other on a yearly basis to account for some of their non-conference games (taking up the remainder with pre-season tournaments). If they were forced to play each other within a conference schedule, it would make filling their schedule all the more difficult, perhaps requiring them to travel to the Lower 48 for some of their non-conference games, which neither team currently does.

The CCHA's path to survival as a conference almost certainly rests in adding new programs, since we've seen how tenuous survival can be with eight or fewer teams. Fortunately, there are a number of viable options out there, including the possibility of adding new programs (which again, we won't speculate on specific schools here).

Atlantic Hockey: We'll touch more on this when we get to discussing the growing divisions in college hockey's lone minor (but improving) conference, but there are a number of teams in Atlantic Hockey that would likely love to join the CCHA, even in a weakened condition, than stay in the cost-contained AHA. First and foremost, there's Niagara and Robert Morris, both dealing with scholarship restrictions they'd prefer not to have. There's also RIT, which has been dominant in AHA and is clearly yearning for a bigger challenge, though they'd prefer the ECAC. Mercyhurst wouldn't be too far away and has been trying to improve their position. The bottom line is, there are a number of opportunities for AHA teams, especially western AHA teams, who might be interested in improving their station through the CCHA if they're up for the challenge of competing with a full slate of scholarships.

Alabama-Huntsville: Let's not forget the lone current independent in hockey's southern outpost. The shuffling that the Big Ten's arrival represents is welcome news in Huntsville not because it opens an obvious spot for the Chargers, but because it breaks the status quo, which is what has left them on the outside looking in. Could there be a spot for them in the CCHA? Certainly. Is it a sure thing? Far from it. By all reports, the schools that were warm to the idea of the Chargers joining the conference the last time they looked to join were, by and large, the bigger schools, and most of them are leaving. UAH would help stabilize the league on numbers alone, but it would also increase travel costs for a league that is not going to have as much money to play with once the heavy hitters hit the road.

Michigan Tech: Here's an interesting possibility that's probably more rampant speculation than anything, but... what about Tech? They bolted the WCHA for three years in the early 1980s for the CCHA and their local rivals from NMU currently play there (with non-conference games between the schools continuing on a yearly basis). Tech is starting anew with a new coach next year and haven't finished in the top half of the WCHA since 1993 - since then, they've finished last nine times, including each of the last three years. Might the program be better suited to grow in what will be a weaker league, one in which they would lend a bit more gravitas to in the process? It's absolutely nothing but speculation since Tech seems to be happy in the WCHA (and the reverse is probably true, since they're the trustees of the MacNaughton Cup, the league's regular season championship trophy), but... maybe something to think about as a possibility.

1 comment:

  1. The CCHA in its current form is done. But... This presents an opportunity for a lower-tier all-sports conference to step up and become a powerbroker in ice hockey. I'm talking about the Mid American Conference.

    There are already two MAC Athletic Depts that have it as a goal to eventually form D-I men and women's teams: I'm talking about Buffalo and Ohio University. Add to that a school that resides in one of the greatest hockey markets in the US -- Northern Illinois University.

    In combination with Miami, Bowling Green, and Western Michigan who are currently members of both the CCHA and MAC -- you now have a viable hockey conference.

    I'm sure the MAC would be willing to add Ferris State, Lake Superior State, and Northern Michigan as associate hockey-only members. They do this in other sports.

    As far as Alaska and Alabama-Huntsville, I don't have an answer for that.


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