Monday, July 25, 2011

Tsunami Watch: Western Redux

Now that everything we ever knew about college hockey is basically wrong, it's time to re-examine the moving parts out west again, since everything we discussed in previous editions of Tsunami Watch with regards to those teams has changed somewhat.

By the way, we've been talking like this is all going down right away... 2013 is when the actual shifting will all take place. So we've at least got two more seasons of relative calm as it pertains to the actual product on the ice.

Big Ten: The Big Ten is still pretty much hunky dory. There's not much out there that is going to change, given the league's status not just as an all-sports conference, but as one of the BCS conferences. It's worth mentioning, I suppose, that because of the Big Ten's status as a new hockey conference, the teams within will have to forego an automatic bid to the national tournament in 2014 and 2015 due to the NCAA's requirement that new conferences wait for two years before receiving an autobid.

NCHC: The six teams that currently make up the NCHC are all set - North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha, and Miami. Chances are pretty solid that they'd like to bring in at least one or two more teams, and Notre Dame is number one on that list, no question. More on them (and the other candidates) later. Like the Big Ten, the NCHC will have to forego an autobid until 2016, though it would be beyond shocking if the league's members didn't earn an at-large or two at minimum.

WCHA: The five remaining schools - Alaska-Anchorage, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State, and St. Cloud State, appear to be rallying around the WCHA flag. There's no doubt that this league will be signifcantly weaker than the one we have known, and the MnSCU institutions (Bemidji, Mankato, and St. Cloud) are poised to take a leading role in the future of the conference.

Northern Michigan: They're on their way back to the WCHA, which they played in from 1984 through 1997. This reunites the Wildcats with their rivals from Michigan Tech, and it puts the WCHA back on somewhat more secure footing as NMU becomes the sixth team. If nothing else, the WCHA will continue to have their automatic bid come 2013 - the question now is whether the league can stay strong enough to be able to produce an at-large bid as well.

Notre Dame: We started out with Notre Dame as the pivot, but the NCHC clearly wasn't willing to wait to see what the Irish would do and took the second step themselves. Now we've got a third step with NMU moving to the WCHA and we could see other teams reacting to the Big Ten/NCHC combination, but no future step will be as big as where Notre Dame ends up. There are really only two options here - either the NCHC or Hockey East. The WCHA is no longer a viable option following the NCHC split since it doesn't offer the Irish anything they wouldn't get out of staying in the CCHA, which is now even less of an option as teams continue to bail. Word has it that the hockey staff prefers the NCHC, while the administration - i.e. the ones who will more than likely be making the final decision - are said to prefer Hockey East. What remains to be seen is whether the hockey people can influence the administration enough to get what they'd like.

We've already discussed the ins and outs of Notre Dame to Hockey East, what about the NCHC? From the administration's perspective, the NCHC is, like the CCHA following the Big Ten split, full of programs that may be hockey powers, but aren't among giants in other sports. The hockey people are certainly drawn to the regional hockey power aspect of the NCHC.

Western Michigan: Of the programs that make up "the rest," WMU actually seems to have the most options on the table. It's reported that they have a standing offer to join the NCHC. They could instead choose to follow NMU to the WCHA. They could hang with some of their CCHA conference mates and try to form the nucleus of a new CCHA. There are even rumors out there that WMU might be welcome in Hockey East if Notre Dame chooses that route, given the proximity of Kalamazoo to South Bend.

The last one is kind of a longshot - there's not much need for a team right near Notre Dame unless Hockey East decides to move to an ECAC-esque travel partner system, which doesn't make a great deal of sense. Right now, the most likely move appears to be a move into the NCHC to follow their Mid-American Conference brethren from Miami. The NCHC isn't doling out invitations on the cheap, and once WMU settles in with a new coach, they could well become the seventh team in the NCHC, though life would certainly not be easy for them there - they'd be a minnow among giants, at least at first.

Alaska: The Nanooks are in a tight spot. We've touched on why it's a bad idea for both Alaska schools to be in the same conference, and yet, when it comes to their survival, it might just end up happening anyway. Rumor has it that Alaska will apply for WCHA membership, which would put them with their rivals from Anchorage in what would then be an eight-team conference. That would almost certainly necessitate yearly trips to Alaska for the entire WCHA and require both UAF and UAA to get creative with non-conference games, but with the CCHA's existence in question, the Nanooks (and the Seawolves, who do depend on UAF for some games) probably feel that it's in their best interest to get themselves into an existing league.

Bowling Green: The Falcons, like their MAC colleagues from Western Michigan, also have options, but theirs are a little hazier. They could try for the WCHA, but they're a little far away from the rest of the conference and they'd be the only Division I program unless WMU decides on that path. They could stick around in the CCHA, especially if WMU chooses that path. NCHC or Hockey East bids would both be longshots.

Lake Superior State and Ferris State: These schools are absolutely stuck in limbo until something else happens. Neither are appealing to the WCHA or the NCHC due to the size of the schools and their geographic locations - which means they could well be dependent on the eventual survival of the CCHA in order to have a conference in 2013. They'll need to be proactive in recruiting new members, because it's going to require more than a few, and they're almost certainly going to come from Atlantic Hockey and the independent ranks (of which, there is only one, who we're getting to). That is a very difficult position to be in. They could forseeably try for WCHA membership, but remember, that conference is now completely comprised of smaller schools with smaller budgets and still involves a school from Alaska, if not two. The footprint can't grow by much more.

Niagara, Robert Morris, Mercyhurst, and Canisius: Recent reports have these four programs, known to be interested in moving up in the world, in discussions with the CCHA about joining that conference. The biggest problem right now? It's hard to know exactly what teams are concerned with the makeup of the CCHA in 2013. It seems that there's at most four - LSSU, Ferris, and maybe BGSU and/or WMU. That's a tough place to start from. One thing that is generally agreed upon here is that these four schools are almost certainly going to want to come into an Alaska-free CCHA. The inclusion of these four institutions would move the CCHA's footprint east, but it would guarantee the conference a minimum of six programs, even if four of them were new to the conference.

Air Force: If the above four teams leave Atlantic Hockey, it puts some additional pressure on Air Force to consider the new-look WCHA since it would leave AHA basically with Air Force, RIT, Holy Cross, and an assortment of low-budget or low-attention programs. The difficulty now, though, is that a WCHA comprised entirely of Minnesota, Alaska, and Upper Peninsula schools may not be terribly keen on bringing in a Colorado school, especially when both Alaska schools are involved.

Alabama-Huntsville: If the Big Ten was the best thing that could happen for UAH given the log-jam created by four full conferences and an 11-team CCHA unwilling to bring the Chargers on, the formation of the NCHC is probably one of the worst. It puts the power teams of the west, the ones with the most money and therefore most willing to bring in a team that requires more travel than the average program, into elite segments that UAH cannot hope to break into. That leaves the Chargers with two options - a CCHA largely comprised of teams that did not support their inclusion in the past, or an Atlantic Hockey that has lost some of its current programs. As with the Atlantic Hockey teams looking at the CCHA, UAH would almost certainly require Alaska to move out of the conference before they would be considered, but for the opposite reason: the existing schools of the CCHA would not be willing to deal with both UAH and UAF in the same conference, but might be more willing to stomach the Chargers without also having the Nanooks around.

MSU-Moorhead: WHO? Oh, you don't know the Dragons? That's probably because they don't have a varsity program. And yes, I said I wasn't going to engage in rampant speculation over schools without programs, but Moorhead has gone beyond speculation, announcing a fundraising drive last week for what they hope will be a new program in the near future. As a MnSCU school - the "MSU" stands for Minnesota State University - the Dragons would fit perfectly into the WCHA, given its new outlook. Let's not count them in quite yet, but they're hoping to be able to make an announcement of a new program in the coming months, so they're worth keeping an eye on.

So that's about where we stand right now. Waiting to see who the WCHA's new suitors are, what Notre Dame is going to do, and who WMU (and Northeastern, by the by) chooses as their new coach. Join us next time for another exciting edition of "As the Tsunami Turns."

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