Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Tsunami Watch: Eastern Effects

The tidal wave that has completely obliterated western college hockey as we know it looks to be making its way east.

While eastern hockey is unlikely to suffer any radical changes in the way the WCHA and CCHA have been completely torn to shreds - with the possible exception of Atlantic Hockey, as we've discussed - changes do seem to be on the horizon, and they could well directly affect the Engineers.

On Sunday, the NCHC (which apparently wishes to be known as "The National") announced that it would launch its first season in 2013 as an eight team conference.

Let's see... North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Miami, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha, Western Michigan, and St. Cloud State. Yeah, looks like they're already at eight.

Notre Dame? Hmm... awk...ward.

"We conducted a deliberate and exhaustive process that included consideration of adding more institutions." said NCHC ringleader UND athletic director Brian Faison. "In the end, we determined it is in the best interest of the Conference to proceed with our eight outstanding programs."

So, basically, they told Notre Dame to take a hike. Or, more likely, talks with Notre Dame broke down over some issue (probably television revenue) and the NCHC decided to make it look like they never wanted Notre Dame in the first place.

The Irish have already categorically ruled out independence, and there's no chance they're interested in Bowling Green's Zombie CCHA project (which we should find out more about this week given the Falcons' October 7th deadline for joining the WCHA). That basically leaves Hockey East for Notre Dame. The Irish are reportedly making their decision known tomorrow.

It's been reported in multiple places that if Hockey East brings in Notre Dame, they will want a complimentary 12th program in the fold as well, and we've talked long and hard about the possibilities of RPI being that team.

Here are the candidates, in ascending order of likelihood, that have been mentioned.

Cornell: I don't know where this came from, but in the last week rumors have flittered around that Cornell might be in the running for #12. Most likely, the Big Red were named by someone because for the past 10 years or so they've been the most consistently solid program in the east that isn't in Hockey East. OK, that's true. But even once that's on the table, there's zero reason to expect that Cornell would be the team. They're not just in the ECAC, they're in the Ivy League, and they aren't going to break from that association on an institutional level. If, for instance, Colgate had Cornell's present profile, they'd probably be the favorites right now, but as it is, Cornell's going nowhere.

Harvard: This one isn't very recent, but it's more of a "rumor that just will never die" type thing. This one's 100% based on geography and the fact that the Crimson are the only Boston area school and Beanpot participant not in Hockey East. It's also not happening, for the exact same reason as above.

Holy Cross: The problems that plagued the Crusaders when they applied for ECAC membership in 2004 have not diminished. They still play in a tiny rink that, while on campus, wasn't enough for the ECAC and won't even be close for Hockey East. Their women's team still plays in Division III. About the only things they have going for them is their location in Worcester and that one game back in 2006 where they beat Minnesota in the national tournament, and that's it. Maybe their position as a Catholic school to go along with the four others already in HEA once Notre Dame joins (BC, Merrimack, and Providence), but that's pretty thin.

UConn: This one won't go away because every other New England state school that sponsors hockey plays in Hockey East, and UConn is also a big name school with a big-time athletic program. A hockey program costs a lot of money to operate as compared to most other sports (including basketball), and UConn doesn't spend much on their program. That would have to change. They'd have to start offering scholarships in order to have a prayer in Hockey East (and it would probably be demanded). Then they'd have to offer more scholarships in a women's sport in order to balance Title IX concerns. They'd also need a modern ice rink with increased capacity, and those don't just come around that often - ask Penn State. The amount of money UConn would have to lay out in order to join Hockey East is probably on par with that of a brand new program, and given UConn's intense focus on basketball, football, and soccer, there's just not much of a reason to expect that kind of outlay to be forthcoming.

Quinnipiac: Outside of RPI, Quinnipiac does appear to have the most attractive potential offering for Hockey East. It's a program free from distinct connections to its current situation, unlike the Ivies. It's a program that has continually improved since joining Division I. They have a fairly new arena. It's in New England. They have an up-and-coming women's program. The one thing that the Bobcats don't have, which may ultimately be the killer, is the history. There's not much of it to speak of in Hamden, and there aren't any traditional links between QU and Hockey East programs - not even really any casual links either other than a game or two here and there. Now, Notre Dame doesn't exactly have the hockey history either, but they've got the name and they've gone a lot farther with their upward trending program.

RPI: We've already mentioned everything the Engineers offer Hockey East. By itself, it's not enough. RPI would never have been #11, at least, not right now. But overall, RPI presents the most complete package for Hockey East. A resurgent program. A just-renovated arena with plenty of capacity. History, with a pair of national titles (only BU, BC, and Maine can claim those in HEA right now) and historical links with most of the league's members. The ability to leave other teams in the ECAC behind. Geography isn't perfect, but it's not too far away from most of the league. Throw in the large alumni base in New England and it's basically the best match out there. That doesn't mean that Hockey East is dying to include RPI, but when it comes to meeting their goal of a 12-team league, RPI makes the most sense.

Any other possibilities out there? Well, there's the rest of the non-Ivies in the ECAC. Clarkson or St. Lawrence? Both were offered places in Hockey East in the mid-80s, but neither are attractive candidates now - they're isolated in the North Country, so they'd almost certainly be a combo set and there's only one spot available. Combine that with both programs' recent downturn and there you go.

Union? A program moving up in the world to be sure, but it's a lot easier to compete without scholarships in the ECAC than it would be in Hockey East, they have no real history to speak of before about three years ago, and their rink would not be something HEA's looking for.

Colgate? The rink's a problem here too, it's farther out from New England than RPI is, and their history is closer to Quinnipiac's than it is to RPI or the North Country.

A new program? The University of Rhode Island and Syracuse are two perpetual candidates for a new setup, but URI probably wouldn't be able to put something together in time for 2013 even if they started now, and Syracuse isn't a likely candidate in the near future anyway because of Title IX concerns.

Now, RPI hasn't shown any outward indication that they are interested in leaving the ECAC. We here at WaP are a little bit conflicted about the idea - which you know if you've read our thorough examination of the pros and cons. But the buzz continues to grow. Given the NCHC's press release, we are projecting that Notre Dame will join Hockey East, and that, at some point, RPI will be invited to Hockey East and will accept that invitation. If not RPI, which could have some qualms about leaving 50 years of history in the ECAC behind, Quinnipiac probably wouldn't think twice.

That will leave the ECAC with an 11-team set up, and that would result in a new team sliding into the position vacated by RPI or Quinnipiac. Those contenders? Well, they're pretty easy to identify.

RIT: The natural selection, in our view. RIT is a Liberty League member, just like the North Country and Union (and RPI, for that matter). The academic profile fits well. Geographically they're farther west than any team in the league. You'd have to expect that the Liberty League schools, Colgate, and probably Cornell would be interested in bringing RIT in. The Tigers would almost certainly have to agree to bring women's hockey along for the ride (which, right now, plays in Division III). They've been hoping for an opportunity to move to the ECAC anyway, which probably explains their lack of interest in the Zombie CCHA.

Holy Cross: While the Crusaders won't fit into Hockey East, there could be room for them in the ECAC as long as they bring women's hockey along for the ride. The geography works, especially with Dartmouth, Harvard, and Brown all rather close by. The academics fit. The rink's still a concern here, but not nearly as much as it would be in Hockey East. There was some sentiment within the ECAC for Holy Cross back in 2004, and they could well be interest from the New England contingent of the league this time around. If Holy Cross wants to get out of the scholarship-limited Atlantic Hockey, this is their only reasonable option, so expect them to at least inquire.

Zombie CCHA: Would any of the teams trying to build the Zombie CCHA out of Atlantic Hockey be interested? Perhaps, but probably only if Bowling Green decides against that route and goes to the WCHA. If that happens, the ECAC position becomes like gold for some of these programs, although Robert Morris would almost certainly be completely behind the eight-ball compared to the other three given their distant location.

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Women's hockey
It's interesting to note that with all of the massive changes in men's hockey, there have been a whopping two moves in women's hockey: Penn State will join the CHA in 2013, and Lindenwood became an independent program (for this year) with an application to the CHA. That's it.

The Big Ten has only four women's programs: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State. Thus, those first three will stay within the WCHA on the women's side. Thus, there's no NCHC equivalent on the women's side, either (since Denver, CC, Miami, Nebraska-Omaha, and Western Michigan don't have women's hockey). So the women's WCHA is intact. Notre Dame doesn't have women's hockey, so their move has no impact as well.

The first tsunami related move could well be with Hockey East's #12. We'll have to see if RPI or Quinnipiac's women's team moves along with the men's team. There's certainly no requirement, since Hockey East's women's conference isn't exactly the same as the men's conference, and, as we mentioned above, RIT and Holy Cross don't have D-I women's programs yet anyway. RPI or Quinnipiac could easily stay in the ECAC on the women's side. We'll have to wait and see.

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