Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tsunami Watch: Settling Point?

While we dry out a bit here in Irene-ravaged Troy (which was almost wholly to blame for this not running yesterday), here's the latest on the conference carousel that may soon be grinding to a halt.

Last week, the rumored WCHA-CCHA merger that had been discussed came to fruition as the WCHA offered membership to the remaining members of the CCHA with the exception of Notre Dame, which is still on the fence between the NCHC and Hockey East (and, apparently, becoming an independent).

Alaska, Lake Superior State, and Ferris State quickly accepted. Thus, the WCHA currently looks like this in 2013:

Alaska
Alaska-Anchorage
Bemidji State
Ferris State
Lake Superior State
Michigan Tech
Minnesota State
Northern Michigan
St. Cloud State

There's one thing that all of these schools have in common: Division II. That may be one of the things that is causing hesitation for the other two WCHA invitees, Bowling Green and Western Michigan, both of whom play at the highest level of Division I.

That leaves the following remaining question marks.

Notre Dame: Once again, it was something other than Notre Dame which moved first. We all thought the Irish would be the first to make a move... they're now almost certain to be last. Well... maybe next to last.

The options are still pretty much laid bare on the table. They're one of three remaining CCHA teams, so they can't reasonably stay there - not that that's ever been something that was realistic to begin with. They've got a standing offer from the NCHC, and Hockey East wouldn't say no if they wanted to join there.

If Notre Dame preferred to align themselves with the Big Ten, there's another option that the Irish could be considering - independence. Now, this wouldn't leave the Irish as independents in the style of Alabama-Huntsville, which will be in its second season of fully cobbling together a schedule this year, but rather, would be a situation where the Irish had long-term scheduling arrangements with other leagues, almost certainly with the Big Ten and probably with the NCHC as well. Such an arrangement would allow Notre Dame to keep playing the schools they're already used to playing without having to tether themselves to the Big Ten (which they've famously refused to do for decades) or a conference largely consisted of less prestigious institutions in the NCHC. They wouldn't be able to vie for an automatic bid and they'd have to find a way to keep playing into March (when the conferences are in tournament mode), but with the scheduling arrangements, a good Irish team with a solid record would probably be in contention for an NCAA bid without much problem.

Bowling Green: The Falcons are in an interesting position. They have the WCHA invite in their back pocket, but as a Division I school, they could arguably have the clout to join the NCHC, which would probably like to grow larger than just six schools - not to mention that BGSU's MAC cohorts, Miami, are already there. They're almost certainly going to wait to see what Notre Dame does before making a decision.

Western Michigan: The Broncos are, even more than BGSU, waiting to see what Notre Dame is going to do, in part because their proximity to South Bend could potentially allow them to latch on with the Irish as a travel partner in either the NCHC or Hockey East. It remains to be seen if the latter would be interested at all in WMU, though the former has apparently already extended an offer. Now they also have an offer from the WCHA. Options abound. It's amazing what one outstanding rebound season combined with a new commitment from administration will do for a program.

Atlantic Hockey: The WCHA-CCHA merger kills any chance that the four potential departures - Canisius, Mercyhurst, Niagara, and Robert Morris - had of being able to leave, since they had interest in playing in a revamped CCHA that will no longer exist. Those schools - and RIT as well - still have interest in improving their station in college hockey, however. What options do they have? Honestly, they don't have many places to turn. They could seek to join the ECAC, but even with the WCHA filling back up again, there's not much of a reason for the ECAC to expand (further diluting the pool for the automatic bid). For the time being, they're probably stuck where they are.

Alabama-Huntsville: The WCHA-CCHA merger is kind of a nightmare scenario for the Chargers... unless they can somehow petition the WCHA to become its 10th, 11th, or 12th member. The problem is, we're already talking about a league that is going to have to figure a way to include a pair of schools as isolated as Alaska and Alaska-Anchorage, bringing on another isolated team - and another D-II school - might be a dicey proposition.

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