Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tsunami Watch: Double Dipping

Just when you thought the conference carousel might be slowing down, something happens and it kicks right back into full gear once more.

Without much notice, it was announced yesterday that the NCHC would offer membership to Western Michigan and St. Cloud State. The former wasn't much of a surprise, as the Broncos had an offer on the table already, but the latter was... surprising to say the least. Almost as surprising, the Huskies quickly accepted, going against statements the school had made a couple of months ago.

Why the turn around? Well, for one, everyone's still waiting to see what Notre Dame is going to do. In the meantime, the NCHC had only six teams: Colorado College, Denver, Miami, Minnesota-Duluth, North Dakota, and Nebraska-Omaha. Those are some high powered programs, and one of them has to come in last. Thus, thanks to the NCAA's rule that no team with a sub-.500 record can earn an at-large bid to the national tournament, the league would probably restricted to three or, at a maximum, four bids a year. Thus, the need to expand, and in a hurry.

So where does that leave us? Well, let's break it down.

Western Michigan: At the end of the day, this one's not too surprising, especially once St. Cloud was given an offer as well. WMU, through their actions over the last year, have proven that they are going to give 110% to their hockey program, and their athletic director has a stated goal for the program of a national championship. The huge raise they gave Jeff Blashill before the Red Wings came calling and the hiring of NHL coach Andy Murray is plenty to indicate an up and coming program, and the NCHC, in the long run, is probably the best place for the program given those goals.

St. Cloud State: This one's a little more surprising and there's already been a lot of debate in St. Cloud as to whether this was the right move to make. First off, when the NCHC was first announced, SCSU was adamant that they wanted nothing to do with the league and that they planned to take a leading role in the new WCHA. Secondly, when the "new" WCHA started to congeal, most observes had the Huskies pegged as one of the programs that could potentially dominate the conference on a regular basis, leading to more frequent NCAA appearances and, in turn, better shots at the Frozen Four and the national title.

Now, SCSU will have to fight with the big dogs of the NCHC - not that they haven't tangled with most of the teams in the league before, but there were also some minnows to fall back on in the WCHA. They won't have that in the NCHC. They also suddenly look like one of the villains just months after promising to be a hero for the WCHA. This move will help the school with their visibility, but they may find it a tougher row to hoe in the long run.

It's also worth noting that with this move, St. Cloud State turns its back on its MnSCU brethren in Bemidji and Mankato, something that definitely won't sit well with those programs. The loss of St. Cloud State takes an already weakening conference and makes it decidedly more weak.

Notre Dame: Once again, the Fighting Irish dither while the rest of the hockey world moves in anticipation of what they may or may not do. The options are still mostly the same as we've gone over many times before - NCHC, Hockey East, or independence - but in the much larger picture (not something hockey fans are used to examining), there may be a fourth option opening.

If you've been paying attention to the NCAA as a whole lately, you've seen the carousel going on at the highest levels as well, with teams changing conferences left and right. The Big East especially seems to be in serious danger of either fracturing outright or what we should probably call WCHA-ization in that they won't be much of a major conference anymore by the time the wheel stops spinning. The problem here is that while Notre Dame is famously independent in football, they're a member of the Big East in everything else. If the Big East implodes, Notre Dame will need a new home, and the rumor that will never die always revolves around the Big Ten. So that route may yet be open.

By the way, there's even talk of these BCS superconferences breaking from the NCAA altogether - and that would make some serious waves in college hockey as well since you're talking the Big Ten plus Boston College and Notre Dame among those. Topic for another day, perhaps, but... that would make this tsunami look like a ripple in a kiddie pool.

Bowling Green: The only other CCHA program without a dance partner, the Falcons appear to be out of options other than the still-pending WCHA invitation. If the NCHC had any interest in BGSU, they probably would have already sent them an invite, and since league members are already talking about how eight teams is fine and a ninth would have to bring a lot to the table (code for Notre Dame), BGSU might as well just take the WCHA invite while they have it.

Alabama-Huntsville: This new development actually opens the door a little bit for the Chargers as it pertains to the WCHA. Adding BGSU would leave the WCHA in the same place they were before this new development: nine teams. UAH could potentially round that back off to ten... if they can find a way to be palatable to a league that's already going to have to deal with having a pair of teams from Alaska in it, as we've already mentioned.

NCHC: Sitting pretty now that they've got a couple more teams to boost that at-large potential. The numbers and teams involved definitely make the conference better able to compete with the Big Ten head to head, which was the goal all along, though purists will point to its makeup - 6 WCHA teams and 2 CCHA teams - and call it a WCHA rehash, more polite than asking UAA, MTU, Mankato, and Bemidji to leave.

Big Ten: Of course, it's worth mentioning that the Big Ten, like the NCHC before yesterday's announcement, has only six members right now, and thus has the same issue with top programs potentially being forced out of the NCAAs due to their record. Unlike the NCHC, however, the Big Ten doesn't have any real prospects for expansion on the horizon (with the possible exception of the Notre Dame scenario above). The league has the stability that comes with direct affiliation with a major non-hockey conference, but it also has the limitation that it can't just throw invites to teams the way the NCHC just did. If the Big Ten expands, it's going to be with new varsity programs at Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska-Lincoln, Northwestern, or Purdue. That's it.

By the way, do you know who the sub-.500 at-large rule now benefits the most? WCHA, Hockey East, and ECAC teams.

RPI: Speaking of ECAC teams... we're still keeping an eye on the Notre Dame situation as it could pertain to new opportunities for RPI as we discussed earlier this summer. There are two things this NCHC expansion does to the metric we laid out for a potential RPI-Hockey East merger. First, it makes larger conferences more acceptable again. Second, it may increase the likelihood of Notre Dame choosing Hockey East, though they're certainly still more than welcome in the NCHC. As it is, there's little doubt that RPI is keeping a hawk an eagle eye on Notre Dame and weighing their own options. As always, stay tuned.

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