Friday, July 8, 2011

Tsunami Watch: Rise of the Superconference?

We interrupt our look around the nation Tsunami Watch to bring you this important update. It appears the west may just be getting a bit wilder.

Multiple sources are now reporting that a number of teams from the WCHA and CCHA, seemingly led by the University of North Dakota, are in advanced talks to create what will essentially be a second breakaway conference from those leagues following the lead of the Big Ten. The schools that have been named as a party to those talks are UND, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, Colorado College, Nebraska-Omaha, Notre Dame, Miami, and Western Michigan.

That list, by and large, comprises the heavy hitters of both of those leagues, as we mentioned in our previous editions of Tsunami Watch. If such a league were to form, it would surely mean the death knell for both the WCHA and the CCHA. There would be five teams remaining in both leagues.

When news first broke about this new "superconference" earlier this week, one of the theories was that it was a power play by some of the bigger schools of the WCHA to force the conference to go hard for Notre Dame and Miami. It now appears to have been somewhat more than just a power play.

What does this mean for college hockey? In the west, it almost certainly means a stratification of the sport - and potentially, the loss of some programs. The remaining schools of the WCHA and CCHA are going to have no practical alternative than to band together for survival, and the result is not pretty:

Bemidji State
Bowling Green
Ferris State
Lake Superior State
Michigan Tech
Minnesota State
Northern Michigan
St. Cloud State

There's all of ONE Division I school in that conference, and it's a program that has been struggling mightily of late. There are a lot of problems with this group, not the least of which that the Alaskan schools have been forced together, and we've already underlined why that is a problem not just for those schools but for the rest of any conference that would include both.

But even further than that, this is a conference that is going to be hurting for attention against the Big Ten and the so-called "superconference." It's going to be the "have nots" in college hockey, a league that won't even be able to boast the overall academic profile of the ECAC, cast aside by the powers on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Unfortunately, you can't control what schools and programs are going to do when it comes to self-interest.

Consider Bemidji State, which spent $35 million on a brand new facility in the hope of joining the WCHA, a dream they realized last season but could now be completely dashed. Their sister school, St. Cloud State, which has plans for a $30 million renovation to their facility. Lake Superior State, home of three national championships and a daunting dynasty in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Michigan Tech, a school with three national championships of its own and a rabid fanbase undeterred by a bevy of disappointing seasons in recent times.

These schools are not just the refuse of college hockey. They are vibrant, integral parts of the landscape, vivid reminders that college hockey is a world where Bemidji State can take on Notre Dame... and win.

SCSU alum Mike Doyle points out that a superconference would likely put five Minnesota schools playing in three different conferences. That's a further stratification of the State of Hockey itself, where the Gophers were already top dog, but now it's almost a confirmation that the rest of the state doesn't matter. The charm of schools large and small playing on a somewhat even keel may be coming to an end, and if you're a fan of a Division II or Division III school, that has to be at least somewhat troubling.

That's 11 schools - don't forget about Alabama-Huntsville - that, as our friend Bruce Ciskie tweeted yesterday, have a decision to make about how important hockey is to them. 10 of those schools are D-II institutions.

There are underlying concerns here, mostly involving the CCHA components of this affair. Notre Dame, reportedly, is not yet committed to this arrangement, and they still hold some pretty solid weight, possibly weighing an invite from Hockey East. If they were to decide on that route, what exactly makes this superconference so eminently superior to a WCHA that brought Miami and Western Michigan (or another CCHA school) on board? Is UND then merely hot to throw smaller schools under the bus?

News has also come down that Western Michigan head coach Jeff Blashill may become an assistant coach for the Detroit Red Wings. If that happens, where does that leave the Broncos, a program that this time last year had some serious questions floating about how committed the school was to success?

It's hard to blame all of the schools potentially involved in this affair, however. If this conference is created, every single member of the WCHA and CCHA are going to want a place at the table, and that's absolutely understandable. Unfortunately, there aren't enough chairs for everyone, and the end result could be nothing short of disaster - and a net regression for college hockey, especially if some schools decide that they're not interested in competing for scraps.

Consider the state of the NCAA tournament. When Penn State begins play in 2012, there will be 59 Division I programs. With a 16 team tournament, that means 27.1% of programs get to play for the national championship every year, up from 27.6% now. That's better than 1 in 4. Compare that to basketball - only 19.7% of men's teams reach the big dance every year. Is the NCAA going to allow the tournament to remain at 16 teams if more programs fade away?

Just something to mull about as the superconference rumors fly.

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