Wednesday, February 8, 2012

New Kids on the Block?

One of the more popular pastimes among college hockey watchers even before the conference shuffle of last season has always been the speculation on new programs. In the last ten seasons, we've seen just three new programs come along - Robert Morris started from scratch, RIT moved up from D-III, and now Penn State is elevating its club program.

Penn State was, of course, one of the most common rumors in this psuedoscientific field. We constantly hear rumors of new programs at Navy, Syracuse, and Rhode Island. We hear of interest that later comes to nothing at Lindenwood, Kennesaw State, Liberty, and Missouri-St. Louis. That's not to say that there aren't possible new programs just on the horizon - in fact, with all the changes taking place, we may well see new programs. Here are the five schools with the most buzz at the moment.

MSU-Moorhead: The hottest item out there right now is one of seven four-year institutions in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MnSCU), six of whom compete in Division II athletics in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. Of those six, three - Bemidji State, Minnesota State, and St. Cloud State - already compete in D-I hockey. The Dragons have been making noise in recent years about seeking to join their MnSCU brethren as Fargo-Moorhead's college team, but it wasn't until this summer that things started to get serious. The school is putting together a funding drive and has an active goal of starting a program in 2013 when the new alignments begin. With Bemidji and Mankato as part of the new WCHA's core and the new league in need of a 10th member, the Dragons would be a solid fit - the major question is whether they can secure the funding in time for the first season of the new and not-so-improved WCHA.

Illinois: With the advent of the Big Ten, there are suddenly six new schools with a custom made conference to join if they start a varsity hockey program and, much like Columbia and Penn to the Ivy League, you can expect non-stop speculation on which one will be the next one on board. It's not a great deal to go on, but Let's Play Hockey, a noteworthy publication on high school, junior, and college hockey in Minnesota tweeted in December that the founder of Jimmy John's (the sub shop chain) is considering funding a transition from club hockey to D-I. The Fighting Illini (uh oh) won national club championships in 2005 and 2008 and were runners-up in 2009. With six-time champions Penn State making the plunge starting next season (and they should add a 7th this year), Illinois does become the most successful remaining Big Ten club program out there and a possibly logical seventh member.

Wisconsin-Green Bay: The Phoenix have an interesting position in the UW system. The system has two research universities, the flagship in Madison and the school in Milwaukee. Then there are 11 other comprehensive universities around the state - 9 of which are Division III schools (5 with hockey), and 1 of which is Division II. Green Bay stands alone in D-I. As we saw last year, there's a vibrant enough hockey community in Green Bay for the move to work and a built in place to play at the Resch Center. The WCHA is reportedly hoping to lure the Phoenix into the D-I ranks, a move that would place the league back in the familiar territory of the Badger State and help link the Minnesota teams more to the new batch of programs joining from the Great Lakes region.

Iowa State: The Cyclones, much like Illinois, are a top-end athletic school (they make their home in the Big 12) with a better than average club program. ISU won the national club championship in 1992 and reached the national championship in 1990, 1996, 1997, and 2010. Iowa is a unique place to explore expansion of college hockey, especially since the state makes up the heart of the NCAA's top feeder system, the USHL (five teams call the Hawkeye State home). The WCHA is rumored to be interested in ISU just as they are apparently interested in Green Bay, but ISU could well draw attention from the NCHC as well if they start making strides toward D-I hockey. They would be one of only two D-I level schools in the WCHA, while they would at least be with two other FBS schools in the higher-profile NCHC.

Buffalo: The Bulls make a third FBS school on this listing, which could bode well for future expansion of college hockey (although adding a bunch of big names could spell trouble for the smaller schools). UB, you will recall, was the wet dream of The Buffalo News' Bucky Gleason a couple of years back, and while we ripped on his overenthusiastic approach, we agreed with the basic premise that the Buffalo area was ripe for college hockey expansion. UB was primarily mentioned this past summer as a possible player in the talks to save the CCHA from extinction. With that possibility now off the table, it's hard to see where Buffalo fits in unless they help take the lead on the formation of a new league, possibly comprised of the Atlantic Hockey schools of western New York and Pennsylvania. Rumor had it that Terry Pegula, owner of the Buffalo Sabres and Penn State's benefactor, was willing to front the money at UB as well to give the Sabres a new practice facility and the Bulls a program of their own.

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