Monday, June 25, 2012

ECAC: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The final piece of the puzzle in the upcoming conference scramble appears to be falling into place with reports last week of Hockey East and UConn inching closer together. Reports are that the Huskies are likely to join Hockey East in 2014-15, one season after what we referred to last offseason as "the tsunami" strikes college hockey's shores, irreparably changing the landscape as we know it.

With Hockey East now apparently destined for the 12 teams most everyone expected they'd finish with, there's only one question remaining - the long-term fate of Alabama-Huntsville. Given a reprieve by the school in December when the school reversed its much-maligned decision to scuttle the program, the Chargers will enter their third season without a conference this October and will still require a place to call home in order to secure their long-term existence.

With UConn set to depart Atlantic Hockey, that leaves the ECAC as the only conference to be completely untouched by "the tsunami." 12 teams when the process started, same 12 teams when it concludes.

Some, especially the powers that be in Albany, would call that a pretty good outcome. Stability is a good thing, as the schools which scrambled to find a home as the CHA and CCHA each disintegrated will tell you.

But how stable is the ECAC, really, and given the current state of the college hockey world, how much benefit is there for teams in the stable ECAC? We've long said that the league no longer qualifies as a "major conference" (at least since the very late 1990s) and that is even more likely to be true once the landscape changes in favor of the new big three: Hockey East, the NCHC, and the Big Ten. With an additional new "mid-major" likely to develop from the new WCHA and basically all of the big power schools concentrated in the Big Three, it's not out of the realm of possibility for the ECAC's decline to accelerate.

What could change things? There are two potential events on the horizon that could very well help tip the apple cart - neither are sure to happen, but neither would be a shock to the system, either.

1) The Ivy League. As we've said before, the Ivy six represent a veritable Sword of Damocles hanging over the integrity of the conference, and the sword has hung for decades, especially the last three following the Hockey East split. The Ivy League competes as its own entity in... pretty much every sport known to man. Men's and women's hockey is a very notable exception.

What would the Ivies gain from a split? They would stand to gain quite a lot, as Harvard's Brendan Roche (WHRB play-by-play announcer and all-around good guy) pointed out in a post last year while discussing the possibility of the ECAC losing RPI or Quinnipiac to Hockey East. First and foremost could well be scheduling: the Ivy League is limited to 29 regular-season games a year, and with 22 of those games earmarked for ECAC contests, that leaves them with only 7 non-conference games to play around with - just five for Harvard, which plays two of its NC games in the Beanpot every year. A six-team league could feature 4 games a season with league teams (all better draws than the non-Ivies currently are), and open two more non-conference opportunities.

Most of Roche's other points are very well taken. It makes sense for them from a marketing standpoint. With the Big Ten coming into being next year, it would give them the ability to showcase an all-sports brand, something that could come in handy when competing with the Big Ten, the NCHC, and Hockey East for talent. They'd also gain their own autobid to the NCAA tournament, though this is a bit of a wash with 9 of the last 11 ECAC autobids going to Ivy teams (Clarkson in 2007 and Union in 2012 the exceptions).

There's nothing the six non-Ivies can do about this, not anymore. None of them would fit into the west-centric NCHC (not that the league would want them if they tried) or WCHA, Hockey East is closed, and the only way out is to a lower league in Atlantic Hockey. The only reasonable option if an Ivy exit happens would be to reconstitute with programs from Atlantic Hockey that are seeking to move up in the world. We're talking about RIT, Niagara, Robert Morris, Holy Cross, and the like.

Of course, the non-Ivies could proactively split, but it's the same scenario. Compare the Ivies to the teams mentioned. With no disrespect intended to those teams (which are honestly trying to boost their competition level), but it's a step down for the ECAC non-Ivies as much as it's a step up for those teams. The only silver lining in all of this seems to be the autobid, but this would in all eventuality be a conference with only marginally better chances of attracting at-large bids than Atlantic Hockey currently does. The ECAC, at the very least, typically draws at least one at-large bid every year, giving some incentive for the non-Ivies to hold onto the marriage as long as the Ivies are still OK with it.

2) Notre Dame and the Big Ten. This is something that has been discussed, literally, for almost a century, since the first overtures between the parties were made in 1926. While the first possibility revolves entirely around hockey, this one revolves almost entirely upon football, with ripples that could now be felt in the hockey world, given the recent changes to the landscape.

Notre Dame's independence in football is storied - it gives their historic program the opportunity to set their entire schedule, and allows them to negotiate their own national television contract (with NBC) with an exclusivity that helps keep their brand front and center. But Notre Dame football isn't what it was for decade after decade of the 20th century. They haven't won a national championship since 1988 and haven't played for one since 1991. No Heisman Trophy winners since 1987. In the 14 seasons of the BCS, they've played in a BCS bowl only three times, losing all three. They haven't finished the season in the Top 25 of the national rankings since 2006 and only four times since 2000.

What's more, Big Ten football is beginning to eclipse Notre Dame in drawing power and revenues, especially with its Big Ten network. Big Ten schools are now pulling in more TV revenue individually than Notre Dame and their exclusive contract, and as the Irish continue to struggle to be nationally relevant on the gridiron, that inequity may only increase as the years progress.

What does this have to do with hockey, you ask? Well, Notre Dame has long seemed a perfect fit for the Big Ten, and if the economics of it all push the Irish to move football (and everything else) to the Big Ten, it'll take hockey right along with it.

That would create a dilemma for Hockey East. Now back to 11 teams and missing a star attraction, what course of action do BU and BC take? Both reportedly spurned NCHC bids previously, thought in large part to be because of Notre Dame's potential addition to Hockey East. Does that suddenly become an option for those teams? Either way, you're then looking at a 9 or 11 team Hockey East, with openings once again.

These scenarios illustrate the tricky spot the ECAC finds itself in, both as an integral unit and as two different halves. For the non-Ivy League teams especially, there could be a glass ceiling forming just as Minnesota-Duluth, Ferris State, and Union were proving that the Division II and III schools still had room to succeed at the highest levels.

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