With the NCAA’s Frozen Four tournament about to kick off with 16 teams involved, it got me thinking of the one team guaranteed not to make the playoffs next year: The Wayne State Warriors.
That’s because the Detroit school is shuttering its hockey program, which in turn drops membership in the CHA conference to a lowly four – Alabama-Huntsville, Niagara, Robert Morris and Bemidji State.
Not exactly a murderer’s row, but Niagara will be representing the CHA in the Frozen Four via automatic bid, so at least it’s in the game.
Now one of my great passions is college basketball’s March Madness tourney (until I’m out of the office pool – then I’m just sullen) and part of the fun is watching teams you never thought had a chance pulling off upsets. This is why college hockey needs more teams.
There are fewer than 60 Division 1 hockey programs today and none in the Pacific Time zone (though there are two Alaska schools even further west).
The majority of teams are in the northeast and midwest, with a strong pocket in Colorado. But as we are seeing more prospects coming from California and even Texas, these are the places the NCAA should be coveting.
Schools such as Texas, Southern Cal or Washington are all major players in other sports and already have hockey at the club level. Tennessee has played hockey since the 1960s.
These schools already have big followings, which means more exposure and media coverage for the sport. The other plus is that thanks to football, these athletic departments are loaded. The minus, is that because of football, it is very difficult for these schools to comply with Title IX, the legislation that states women must have as many athletic scholarship opportunities as men.
Of course, there is an easy way to solve this: Field a women’s hockey team as well. You don’t know what interest would be like until you offer the option and you already have the rink, so why not?
The key would be to make sure there are natural rivalries from the get-go. If Southern Cal has a team, then UCLA needs one, too. Bring in Texas and you better bring in Oklahoma as well (incidentally, Oklahoma has a small, but rabid hockey following). And while Tennessee is more used to Alabama’s Crimson Tide, I’m sure Vols fans will learn to hate the Alabama-Huntsville Chargers just as much.
This expansion also solves a lot of geography problems. A kid from B.C. has to go a long way from home if he wants to play college hockey, but the Washington Huskies are based in Seattle, which is an easy trek for family and friends to catch a home game. And the Washington State Cougars would give prospects from the B.C. interior a close option.
This northwest foothold would also be a godsend for the two Alaska teams; even if they weren’t in the same conference, I’m sure Seattle and Pullman are the first non-conference road trips they would try to schedule every year.
I recognize this would be a dramatic undertaking. For the WCHA, CCHA, ECAC, Hockey East and even Atlantic Hockey, things are going just swell. But if college hockey wants to take things to the next level, expansion is necessary. And before you fit me with Gary Bettman horns, remember; we’re not taking anyone’s teams away here.
Europeans such as Andreas Nodl and Stepan Novotny have already realized how tantalizing elite hockey and a free education can be and if anything, expansion gives the NCAA another arrow in its quiver to battle major junior for talent.
There will be growing pains and there will be some bad teams – but there will also be more hockey. And can anyone think of a downside to the 2018 national championship coming down to a Michigan-Southern Cal final?
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 Wednesdays and his features, The Hot List and Year of the Ram, appears Tuesday and Thursday, respectively.
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