The Big Ten Conference is a go. There is some paperwork to be completed to make it official, but the powerful NCAA league is coming to hockey in 2013-14 and the ramifications are obviously huge.
For one, the entire college hockey landscape is altered, since the CCHA and WCHA both lose several tentpole teams. Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Minnesota will be joined by new program on the block Penn State to form the power conference. The Big Ten has its own lucrative cable network and the allure of the school names alone will bring in new hockey fans as well as cement Penn State’s nascent fan base. As one insider told me at the time of Penn State’s program announcement, “Fans will watch Penn State play Wisconsin in tiddly-winks.”
Now that’s a rivalry.
But what about the other Big Ten schools? Technically there are 11 programs to choose from and while Purdue, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois and Northwestern all have hockey at the club level, don’t expect any of those schools to make the leap to Division I hockey anytime soon.
“The biggest thing for us is funding,” said Indiana team president Jason Burriss, who also played goal for the Hoosiers this season. “We don’t have a rink on campus. From our standpoint, there’s nothing in place. It would take a gift similar to the one Penn State got.”
That would be now-Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula’s $88 million gift to his alma mater, the Nittany Lions, which included money for a new arena.
While Indiana is most closely associated with basketball (both the university and the state itself), hockey does have its place. The United States League’s Indiana Ice averaged about 3,700 fans per game last season and didn’t have the benefit of having Michigan or Wisconsin on its schedule. Plus, Culver Military Academy in Culver, Ind., has churned out NHLers such as John-Michael Liles and Ryan Suter.
“It’s not quite at the level of the Mid-Atlantic or Midwest,” Burriss said of hockey’s popularity in the state, “but it’s growing.”
At Northwestern, the prospects of a leap to big-time hockey are even more remote.
“It’s almost a struggle to maintain a club team,” said Wildcats co-president and forward Sam Weir. “There’s never been any support from the administration. As of right now, Northwestern only has room for one big men’s varsity sport – and it’s football.”
The maddening thing is Northwestern is located in the Chicago suburb of Evanston; the Wildcats would be the Windy City’s only NCAA hockey team. And if you hadn’t noticed, Chicago’s kind of into hockey lately. But the last time the town had a college team to call its own was back in 1996, when the University of Illinois-Chicago Flames called it a day.
“There’s a huge minor hockey tradition in the city,” Weir said, “but college hockey hasn’t gained a foothold.”
The American League’s Chicago Wolves do well, though the USHL’s Steel were at the bottom of league attendance last year with about 1,700 fans per game.
But the major benefit of a Northwestern team – or Illinois, located in Champaign, but still Chicago-supported – would be both the Big Ten name and TV deal. Access to broadcasts is key to building a fan base, as any Versus critic will tell you.
So for the foreseeable future, your Big Ten hockey conference will be a Big Six. But it’s an important step nonetheless. I expect more interest in the college game once the circuit starts up, simply because it’s a conference non-hockey fans know. Michigan beating Ohio State for the Big Ten title means a lot more in the mainstream than if the Wolverines topped the Buckeyes for CCHA bragging rights – that’s an inalienable truth.
The question now is whether hockey would ever consider starting an Ivy League conference – only Columbia and Pennsylvania are missing right now. That would crush the ECAC, but would again heighten the sport’s exposure. Seems like there are only difficult questions when it comes to NCAA hockey these days.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays, The Hot List appears Tuesdays and his Rookie Report appears every other Wednesday. Follow him on Twitter on twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.