When we here at The Hockey News put together our annual People of Power issue this fall, I will strongly suggest a high standing for new Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula. Not only has the man given large swaths of hope to Western New York’s NHL fans, but he also single-handedly set off one of the biggest shakeups in NCAA history.
Pegula’s $88 million gift to Penn State enabled the university to create a Division I hockey program and fund an arena to house their beloved Nittany Lions. That laid the groundwork for a Big Ten hockey conference, which then drove the other large Midwest schools to pull out of the WCHA (and one from the CCHA) to form a new organization to be known as the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Both circuits will start play in 2013-14.
For those keeping score at home, here’s what those conferences will look like:
Big Ten: Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State.
NCHC: North Dakota, Denver, Miami, Colorado College, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha.
Notre Dame is also being courted by the NCHC, while Western Michigan wants in on the action as well. Naturally, all this movement leaves the former powerhouse WCHA and CCHA in ruins. The great fear in the college hockey world is that smaller schools left behind in the shuffle will be irreparably harmed by the loss of marquee opponents from the schedule, but I remain optimistic.
First off, the majority of these programs are in Minnesota and Michigan, which, along with Massachusetts, have historically been known as the Three Ms of grassroots hockey in America. While they may not have the same mass recognition as the Golden Gophers or Wolverines, schools such as St. Cloud State and Bemidji State still boast quality resumes.
The Huskies of St. Cloud played to 103 percent capacity this past season, putting them top-five in the nation for attendance, while Bemidji State became the first team outside of the power conferences to earn a berth in the Frozen Four when they made the semifinal in 2009 as a member of College Hockey America.
And at first blush, college hockey is still a great draw in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Minnesota State-Moorhead, located on the other side of the river from Fargo, N.D., was expected to make an announcement Friday about a potential future in Division I hockey. The Dragons will be a small fish, of course, but Moorhead has produced NHLers such as Matt Cullen, Jason Blake and Brian Lee in recent years, so local talent is there.
Secondly, if the small schools play the situation right, they can work some underdog judo out of this upheaval. As several college hockey pundits have already pointed out, the “have nots” will still have homes in conferences with automatic bids to the national tournament, meaning the chances of a Bemidji State or RIT run to the Frozen Four are just as good if not greater than they once were.
In the end, attendance based on capacity will be the key factor for smaller programs. Rinks in the NCAA range from 1,000 seats (Sacred Heart) to 17,500 (Ohio State) and all points in between. As an interesting aside, the Utica College Pioneers, a Division III school in New York state, would have ranked 24th in average attendance had they played Division I in 2010-11, bringing in 3,233 for nearly 81 percent capacity. That’s better than Notre Dame, Princeton and Providence. So who you play cannot be an excuse for the smaller Division I programs; it’s all about building rivalries and playing good hockey.
It will be a tough road ahead for the Lake Superior States or Bowling Greens of the world, but opportunity is there. Realignment of the leftover WCHA and CCHA schools will have a trickle-down effect and maybe Air Force (based in Colorado) doesn’t have to play in the Atlantic Hockey conference anymore. Maybe Alabama-Huntsville doesn’t have to struggle to survive as an independent. And maybe Alaska-Fairbanks and Alaska-Anchorage actually play in the same conference (I know travel is an issue for opponents, but c’mon – make it work).
It’s a deep time for college hockey, but it’s also an exciting era – not a death knell.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.