Throughout this college hockey season, there have been whispers of a new conference coming into existence, and reshaping the landscape of the current college hockey world.
As the season progressed, those whispers grew more and more tumultuous until the official announcement transformed those whispers into ear-splitting realizations.
On Mar. 21, the Big Ten Conference released plans for the formation of a six-team hockey conference that would commence play in the 2012-13 season. Of the six teams, five of them would abandon their current conferences to join the start-up league.
Wisconsin and Minnesota would bolt from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), the league in which UAA is affiliated with in hockey, to fly under the Big Ten banner. The move of these two storied programs would mean the WCHA goes from 12 to 10 teams.
Feeling the effect even more would be the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA), the conference in which the rival UAF Nanooks compete. Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State would all vacate their current spot in the CCHA and leave just eight remaining teams in the CCHA.
Rounding out the six teams would be the newly formed Penn State team, who announced they would begin a varsity college hockey program in 2012.
So what does this shakedown mean for college hockey?
Simply put, it depends on whom you ask.
For the future Big Ten schools, it’s the gravy train. They will still get an automatic qualifier for the NCAA Tournament with the winner of their conference postseason. They also will likely get huge deals from the Big Ten Network to broadcast the games. That will bring in millions more in revenue to teams that already are well off.
To make it even sweeter, these five teams will still get to play their rivals from their former conference. Basically, they can keep stoking the fires of traditional rivalries and now get rewarded with having tougher non-conference opponents from the CCHA and WCHA.
It is easy understand their logic in moving to the new Big Ten conference and adding a bit more loose change into their pockets while doing so.
For the WCHA, this move (one in which they expected) is another period of movement, something they are familiar with.
“Today’s announcement from the Big Ten conference has been anticipated for some time now,” said Commissioner Bruce M. McLeod in an official statement released the same day the Big Ten announced its plans, “and this will obviously have an impact on the WCHA. But change creates opportunity, too. The timeline of this Association spans seven decades and has included expansion and contraction on numerous occasions, but the success of this organization has remained constant. The commitment to excellence by our member institutions will not waver and working together we will push forward to assure our future remains bright.”
To some, such as UAA Head Coach Dave Shyiak, the move doesn’t make much sense for programs like Wisconsin and Minnesota to leave the WCHA behind.
“I’m not a fan of (the formation of) the Big Ten,” Shyiak said. “I think it’s going to hurt college hockey more than help it.”
Shyiak himself has been a member of the WCHA and CCHA. He was a player for the Northern Michigan Wildcats (a member of the WCHA until 1997) through the years of 1987-91, and captained the Wildcats to their only National Championship in 1991. He had been an assistant and associate head coach for the Wildcats 10 years (in the CCHA) before taking over the Seawolves in 2005.
“I love our league and I think it is the strongest league in college hockey,” Shyiak said. “I understand the intentions of the Big Ten league but I think if you look at our league it is the ‘big twelve’.
“Why dismantle it when you got something going as good as it is.”
For the WCHA, you lose two of your biggest programs in the Wisconsin and Minnesota. Lets be honest, fans are more likely to com out and watch their school’s team go up against a Minnesota or Wisconsin more than a Michigan Tech or Minnesota State. Programs in the WCHA are likely to take a hit in ticket sales due to that fact.
However, the best hockey conference in the land will survive and weather the storm of the Big Ten.
For the CCHA, that effect will be even more drastic and possibly fatal. Bottom feeder teams like Lake Superior, Ferris State, and UAF all depend on their hockey teams as the biggest revenue-getters. With losses of big name programs, these hockey-first schools are likely to struggle to remain above the surface in the near future.
Not impossible to stay afloat, but it will be a mountain to climb.
So is the ripple effect here in the 49th state? UAA doesn’t have too much to fear apart from losing storied programs from their league. UAF has far more at risk due to the move.
Could we see the UAF Nanooks look to join the WCHA sometime in the future? Hey, it seems like a decent fit. Though the WCHA has already said it will look to keep the 10 teams it has right now, pressure from other schools will likely started to amount in the next few years.
My thoughts, after all is said and done, are that we will see UAF joining the WCHA down the line (give or take five years) and we will see the Governor’s Cup rivalry get that much more nasty when the Cup will not only decide state bragging rights, but conference points for home-ice advantage.