Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Moving Parts

Yesterday, some big news hit the college hockey world - Notre Dame is moving out of Hockey East after the 2016-17 season concludes and joining the Big Ten as an associate member for hockey.

For those of you who have your ear to the ground, the move isn't terribly shocking. There have been murmurs that the Irish were unhappy in Hockey East for a little over a year, and obviously the Big Ten's struggles across their first three seasons have been well documented. This is a move that seems to make sense for both parties involved.

During the 2011 schism in the college hockey world caused by the formation of the Big Ten, Notre Dame's final landing spot was much debated. At the time, the Big Ten wasn't an option for them because the conference was not open to adding anyone who wasn't a member in every sport. That changed in 2013 when the Big Ten added Rutgers and Maryland to its ranks, two schools that sponsored lacrosse. With only five schools playing the sport, they added long-time independent Johns Hopkins (a D-III school in every other sport) for lacrosse only as an affiliate member to make six.

The Big Ten has lusted after Notre Dame's storied football program for decades, but that's always been a non-starter. So it's no surprise that the Big Ten, three years into a hockey experiment that has seen the conference embarrassed for basically all of the last two seasons with just one NCAA bid both years, was willing to admit the Fighting Irish this time around.

On Notre Dame's side, there's the understandable travel issue. While they had no problems financially taking a trip to New England every other weekend, and other teams didn't mind having to trek to Indiana once a year, the Irish had a problem with being the only team that had to go on long road trips all the time - a competitive balance issue. The travel within the mostly-Midwest Big 10 shouldn't be too much of an issue.

But that does now leave Hockey East with 11 teams, and moves the Big Ten to seven. The dominoes are starting to fall once more - and an odd number of teams is usually difficult to deal with on the long-term, due to issues with scheduling and playoff seeding. So what happens next?

Arizona State: The Sun Devils completed their first Division I season this year as an independent and they will do it again next year, this time with some additional home games against D-I teams. After that, they've said they want to be in a conference, and the Big Ten has long been touted as an understandable landing point. The one sticking point was considered to be the open question of whether the Big Ten would be OK with having affiliation in hockey. That question has certainly been resolved.

ASU may be in the hinterlands when it comes to hockey, but on the larger scale, they're a big deal - a power school in a power conference. But unless (until?) their Pac-12 brethren start adopting hockey, they need somewhere to reside. The only two conferences that ever made sense on a power and location basis were the Big Ten and the NCHC - the WCHA as it exists now is certainly too small to interest Arizona State.

With Notre Dame's decision and the news that ASU's discussions with the NCHC haven't been plentiful lately, it does seem like the Sun Devils becoming a second affiliate is a lot closer to reality. But it's not certain by any stretch of the imagination. ASU likely needs to start making some progress on their still nebulous plans for an on-campus rink. Their current homes are a tiny rink in Tempe that is the smallest in Division I and the Gila River Arena in Glendale (where the Coyotes play) that is the largest, impossible to fill.

But... who else could it be? Well, Miami has had some notable concerns about their travel situation in the NCHC. They've been strong enough in hockey for the last decade that the Big Ten might be willing to consider them as an affiliate (recall that Johns Hopkins is a lacrosse powerhouse, and Notre Dame is Notre Dame). That quality might open the door to North Dakota (who has traditional rivalries with Wisconsin and Minnesota) or Denver (certainly a storied enough program) as well, who would arguably have a better claim. Both of those schools, however, were among the driving forces behind the NCHC's very creation, and the NCHC certainly isn't having any problems.

Or, the Big Ten could stay with seven. It would be odd, but so is what they've already got going.

That leaves... Hockey East. With 11 teams, they're certainly going to want to get themselves back to 12. Five years ago, we pontificated on who the 12th team would be if Notre Dame was the 11th (basically at the bottom of that link). The answer ended up being UConn - but only after a serious change in their status quo fomented by their hockey loving governor.

Now, the question can be asked again, with UConn off the table. The top three answers are more or less the same.

Quinnipiac: Last time out, we thought Hockey East would arguably be more interested in RPI than in Quinnipiac despite the Bobcats having the newer facilities and the New England location. But in the last five years, there's no question that the Q has established themselves as a powerful program, and the opening in Hockey East probably couldn't have come at a better time if you're on the "Quinnipiac to Hockey East" bandwagon.

We still have to wait and see how the 2016 NCAA tournament plays out, but as the #1 overall seed, Quinnipiac have certainly made themselves the favorites to win the national championship. They played in the national championship game in 2013. The women's team is certainly on the rise, having just won the ECAC championship for the first time. Looking at things from Hockey East's perspective, there's no way at all that, among currently existing programs, they'd have anyone but the Bobcats at the top of their list.

The bigger question is this: does Quinnipiac really want to leave the ECAC? Five years ago, Hockey East was an obvious step up from the ECAC. Today it's still a step up, but it's not nearly as big - the gap has been closed slightly. And as things stand, it's hard to argue that Quinnipiac isn't one of the clear cut top programs in the league - which wouldn't necessarily be the case in Hockey East. Is it better to be a big fish in a smaller pond or a medium-sized fish in a bigger pond? That's the question that Quinnipiac will likely be asking itself.

Hockey East does have some benefits that the ECAC can't offer - national exposure is still far higher in Hockey East. But the ECAC also offers Quinnipiac guaranteed games with Yale every year, something they seem to cherish. The Yale-Quinnipiac "rivalry" is still very one-sided even despite (perhaps even because of) the 2013 national championship game. It's basically RPI-Union from the late-1990s, with Yale playing the role of RPI. Will Yale ever really care about Q though, at least enough to play them regularly in different conferences? It's hard to get an Ivy League team to care about a non-Ivy. That's just history working against the non-Ivy, and history trumps geography big time.

Holy Cross: The Crusaders are still kinda there in the discussion if only because they're right smack in the middle of the league's footprint. But nothing has changed in Worcester since 2011. They're still kinda middling in Atlantic Hockey. They're still playing in the same small rink on campus attached to their basketball court (which will be renovated soon, but not made bigger or more impressive). Their women's team is still in Division III. If anything, things may have dipped a bit for Holy Cross. Paul Pearl, an alum who was head coach of the team for almost 20 years, left in 2014 to become an assistant at Harvard. And they haven't been back to the NCAA tournament since that well-known upset of Minnesota in 2006.

The hangup in 2004 when Holy Cross applied to the ECAC was that they weren't interested in paying equal attention to their women's team. There doesn't seem to be anything that's changed there, which makes CHC a tough sell to Hockey East.

RPI: Much has changed for the Engineers in the last five years. Back then, we thought RPI might have made the most sense for Hockey East, and they probably still did if UConn's sudden epiphany had not happened. Much of what we wrote back then remains true.

But from RPI's perspective, the allure of staying in the ECAC has certainly changed. While five years ago we pondered that an RPI move to Hockey East could strengthen the program simply by playing in a higher-end conference, today the Engineers are playing in a conference that has produced two of the last three (and are favorites to make it three of the last four) national champions. The move would be slightly more lateral than it had been back then, and that makes the difference in the academic profile a bit more difficult to deal with.

And this time around, they're definitely second banana to Quinnipiac as things stand, at least from a Hockey East perspective.

More on this in the near future. As with five years ago, the topic of RPI to Hockey East deserves a more detailed look at this blog.

So... what if there's an open spot in the ECAC? What happens then?

Holy Cross: Basically, the same as above. There's no way Holy Cross goes anywhere unless they agree to move women's hockey to Division I, and if they're happy with where it is right now, they're probably happy being in Atlantic Hockey.

RIT: If only Rochester were closer to... Albany, or Worcester, or something, RIT is the totally obvious choice. Academics, history, everything's there. They'd be an 8th program without athletic scholarships.

The problem - and this is a problem - is that the ECAC has a really good thing going with its travel partner system, and RIT doesn't fit into it well. It might work if RPI ends up bailing for Hockey East, but almost certainly wouldn't if it's Quinnipiac. Without RPI, Union is orphaned, and one could see a Colgate-Union pairing and a Cornell-RIT pairing sort of working (or Colgate-RIT and Cornell-Union). If Quinnipiac bounces, Princeton could go back with Yale, but who does RIT pair with that doesn't turn that road trip (and likely, others) into a nightmare? It's a logistical problem for a league that depends on some easier travel schedules to stay a manageable bus league.

If RIT comes large with an ECAC bid, the league could certainly bend quite a bit in order to make it work, especially since they'd add a solid following. There's a lot that RIT has going for it and, geography aside, they bring everything you'd want to the table. But whatever they come up with has got to fit with the Ivy League's preferences, too. The Ivies have the power to blow up the league, so that makes their opinion matter just a little bit more.

Bentley or Sacred Heart: They fit the footprint, but not the gusto. Bentley at least is taking steps in the right direction on getting themselves an on-campus rink, but neither are ready for a step out of Atlantic Hockey.

Army: They've been in the ECAC in the past, and they're a fellow Patriot League member with Colgate, but if you can find anything that would suggest that they'd have a better time in the ECAC than the last time they were there that led to their departure, we'd love to hear about it.

Mercyhurst, Niagara, Canisius, or Robert Morris: No shot. Too far away for all of them. Canisius at least has a sparkly new rink, but that's about it.

American Interna OK, I can't even get to the joke here.

So the quick answer is that there's no really good answer to who makes the ECAC "whole" again if Quinnipiac or RPI leave. And that's problematic for the five non-Ivies that would be left - because if the Ivy League isn't satisfied with how things shake out, they've always got the option of striking out on their own, an option which arguably created Hockey East in the first place.

The real answer of "which team would best make #12" is a team that hasn't been around since 1978: Penn. The Quakers would pair supernaturally well with Princeton, and everything else would stay the same. Unfortunately there's no magic pixie dust that can be used to re-create a team at Penn in order to save the ECAC's bacon. Not to mention that Penn's addition would only make for a stronger possibility of an independent Ivy League down the road, possibly one day made whole if they ever learn about hockey in Morningside Heights.

Bottom line? It's time to tread carefully right now, especially if you're Hockey East and Quinnipiac is unavailable, because there's no other really good answer for #12. If you're Quinnipiac and RPI, you've got to ask yourself if moving to Hockey East is really the best long-term plan, and if not, is the ECAC going to stay iron clad after Hockey East gains a new member?

2 comments:

  1. The Quinnipiac president John Lahey loves the ECAC Hockey League. He will never move to Hockey East. Also, the QU community overwhelmingly enjoys playing in the ECAC as well. QU is almost definitely going to stay in the ECAC which is where they belong.

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