BOSTON - It's championship day here in Boston and as Denver and Minnesota State prepare to do battle, I wanted to delve into the future of college hockey in the U.S.
A 'state of the union' press conference was held yesterday, featuring several conference commissioners and high-ranking executives who took questions on a variety of topics. The most interesting to me involves NCAA expansion.
Right now we're seeing some great movement in that area, with Long Island University and St. Thomas already in the mix, soon to be joined by Lindenwood (near St. Louis), Augustana in South Dakota and Stonehill College right here in Massachusetts.
"It's huge," said Mike Kemp, chair of the men's ice hockey committee and executive associate AD at Nebraska-Omaha. "Today we have more people playing the game at a younger age and to create more opportunity for young people to move forward and grow and play at the highest level is very critical to the growth and development of the game. We as a sport needed to support those programs that emerge."
Kemp is uniquely qualified on the topic, since he was Nebraska-Omaha's first-ever coach back in 1996. Because he can empathize with what it takes to get a program off the ground, Kemp's Mavericks have made sure to schedule non-conference games against newbies such as Arizona State and Long Island in the past few years.
The Sun Devils, who move into a brand-new arena next season (where the NHL's Coyotes are slated to crash for a while), are a perfect example of what the game needs to continue growing: a flagship program in a 'non-traditional' market. Mike Snee is the executive director of College Hockey Inc., a group that promotes NCAA hockey and often cold-calls universities to see if they'd be interested in adding hockey at their school. He sees the big picture at Arizona State.
"They're creating another inspirational team to get more five and six-years-olds to choose our sport," Snee said. "We've all seen the expansion of hockey in this country from USA Hockey to the NHL - and I hope we get to a point where we don't use the term 'traditional market' anymore; they're all hockey markets. You can't have 100 NHL teams, but you can have 100 college hockey teams. That's the goal, to leverage college hockey in a country where college athletics mean so much."
The NHL and NHLPA play a significant role here, as the two entities pay for feasibility studies for any school looking to add D1 hockey. Lindenwood, supported by the St. Louis Blues, is one example, as is the University of Illinois, which has yet to commit to hockey but came onto the radar back in 2017 when the Chicago Blackhawks hosted the draft and held a press conference for the school. The Nashville Predators have also supported Tennessee State's interest and ongoing feasibility study and the Tigers are intriguing because that program would be the first HBCU (historically Black college or university) in D1 hockey.
"It is exciting how much expansion we've seen and also how many other schools are considering it," Snee said. "It starts with the support we're getting from the NHL and the NHLPA."
Something I've been thinking about for a long time now is when we'll see more big-name West Coast schools join the mix. With the success of hockey in California and NHL expansion teams in Vegas and Seattle, the area seems ripe for an eventual Pac-12 conference - of which Arizona State is currently the only program.
"As far as I know, nothing is being considered right now in any of the West Coast states," Snee said. "Our shoot-for-the-moon goal here is in 25 years, Oregon and Washington are playing each other with the Pac-12 title on the line."
If college hockey continues to expand in the coming years, it's worth asking if the Frozen Four will expand, too. While 16 teams is good, it's a really hard tournament and some folks in the industry think it's too much of a gauntlet in a sport used to post-season series play. One agent even mused to me about a Memorial Cup-style format with a round-robin at the end.
It occurred to me the other day that if this were college basketball, you'd basically be starting at the Sweet Sixteen, but with no upsets - a very hard path even for favorites. Now, this year, the cream did indeed rise to the top as both Denver and Minnesota State were top seeds - but it's not always the case.
Right now we've got more than 60 D1 men's programs, so how many would it take to expand the tournament to 32 teams?
"Boy, not having a calculator on me, I don't know if I can do the math," Kemp said with a laugh. "Certainly there would have to be significantly more growth before we go up from 16. I remember coaching when it was eight. We're pretty happy with 16, but would certainly love to see it expand."
Personally? I'm going to say 85 programs would be the minimum number to consider expanding to 32 teams.
Conference placements are key for a lot of new programs and realignments can be a controversial topic. Hockey East commissioner Steve Metcalf got a big laugh when he recalled an executive meeting with some down time.
"A few years ago at the Frozen Four we were spitballing what the college landscape might look like and redrew the map just for fun," he said. "We left the paper on a table and then were in a state of panic, saying someone should go get that paper real quick."
The Hobey Baker was awarded to Minnesota State goalie Dryden McKay last night, giving the all-time shutout king his first Hobey in three tries. McKay, famously small by pro standards, certainly didn't have an easy path to where he is today, but adversity builds character, right? Here's a kid who went down to Corpus Christi, Texas, to play in the NAHL, then played for some bad Madison Capitols teams in the USHL.
"It definitely hardened me," McKay said. "I realized that if I wanted to go anywhere in the game I had to earn it. Especially as an undersized guy I had to learn how to be consistent, that was the biggest thing. On those teams, I was lucky enough to just play. We might not have had the best teams, but that probably helped - I was exposed to a lot of different situations and played against a lot of good players. I wouldn't have had success in college if it wasn't for those years."
As for the Hobey win, it's fair to say McKay recognizes the weight of the honor.
"You kinda black out a little bit when you hear your name and all of a sudden you're up there giving a speech," he said. "I'm super-honored and it's very humbling."
Now his squad has the chance to bring Minnesota State its first national hockey title ever.
"We've still got a little bit of history to make with the Mavericks," he said.