It’s been less than a decade since Penn State set off an earthquake in college hockey. When the Nittany Lions left the collegial-but-competitive top tier of club hockey for the cutthroat world of Division I play, the Big Ten finally got what they always wanted: a league of their own. That gave the Big Ten (Big Fourteen these days?) six DI teams, enough for an NCAA-sanctioned auto-bid hockey conference.
This overlapped the collapse of the short-lived men’s segment of the College Hockey America (CHA) conference—a union of smaller, let’s-get-into-DI hockey schools—leaving several programs with no league affiliation. And being an independent in college hockey means the potential for any kind of prestige is close to zero.
The B1G move gutted both the WCHA and the CCHA, and the survivors, along with CHA teams that persisted, scrambled to put two Humpty Dumpty’s back together again. The powers in the WCHA shed their less competitive long-time partners and grabbed the best remaining schools from the CCHA, and the NCHC came into being. The WCHA collected the remaining pieces and picked up the remaining CCHA schools, plus two CHA survivors and gave us the present WCHA configuration.
Notre Dame (as always) wanted their own version of independence and threw Hockey East into a mess, with an odd number of teams (which means league play always has one school not playing a league game somewhere) and crazy travel schedules. Atlantic Hockey, with its own turbulent history, latched onto the two final men’s teams from the CHA.
Since then, Notre Dame realized the folly of playing in Hockey East, and the Big Ten gladly accepted them as associate members—kind of like Johns Hopkins in lacrosse. The NCHC has become the biggest and baddest conference, winning the last three NCAA championships and getting four or five teams into the tournament most years.
When all is said and done, the WCHA, despite some incredibly exciting and competitive play, ended up as the most tenuous of the six conferences. With just one full-time Division I school (Bowling Green), the league always sits at the edge of losing their auto bid to the Big Skate. Toss in the geographical dispersion (from Fairbanks to Huntsville is a mind-numbing 4,000 miles by car or a 12- to 13-hour, two-stop airplane ride) and the weakness of several teams, and you have a league that is holding on, but not too far above “just barely.”
Hockey East and the ECAC are very stable, with long histories and short travel—much of it by bus. Even Atlantic Hockey is in a better place than the WCHA, with seven full-time D1 schools. You can argue that the caliber of play in AH isn’t as good as the WCHA (and the Old Dog would agree with that one), but the solid position of more than half of the league in the NCAA’s top affiliation is a huge stabilizing force.
So, what’s next? Things have been fairly steady for the past five years, with only the nomadic South Benders and Arizona State’s step-up to DI ruffling the scheme of things. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been a few tremors—more on that in a moment—but the leagues have all been about the same since 2013.
When all is said and done, the Old Dog thinks that the most powerful force that will affect any future alignments is media money. Years ago, we might have said “television money” but that’s so twentieth century. Certainly, on-air and cable television matter the most. The Big Ten Network always needs content, and the BTN money-machine certainly loves having something more appealing than women’s field hockey to keep the advertising dollars rolling in. (No offense to women’s field hockey—the Old Dog watches it from time to time and it’s engaging. But it isn’t going to draw the number of viewers that men’s hockey will draw.)
In fact, it can be argued that the NCHC is really about television and media appeal. When Minnesota State applied for membership, they felt they were competitive and were ready for the meat-grinder. But they were politely rebuffed. Why? The truth is they couldn’t bring in many new eyeballs for either the national TV contract or the subscription media deals that the NCHC has. Add in their likely cannibalization of St. Cloud State’s target Minneapolis-St. Paul markets, and you can easily conclude that the final decision wasn’t about what happens on the ice.
Hockey East and the ECAC have solid media bases, too. Atlantic Hockey is no slouch, either, with the Pittsburgh and Buffalo markets—plus some presence in Massachusetts, Denver, and even the fringes of New York City (Army and Sacred Heart) for media sales.
Our own WCHA doesn’t have much in terms of metropolitan areas, unless you count Anchorage and Fairbanks. And the time zone in Alaska renders that a near moot point, even if the Nanooks and/or Seawolves became on-ice dynamos. Bowling Green does have some presence in Toledo, but Toledo isn’t even Buffalo. Hockey’s still a novelty in Huntsville and the Deep South in general.
While the fans in Houghton are truly great, in terms of media, even with the rabid Tech alumni community, the Huskies “eyeball factor” is smaller than the eyes of a naked mole rat. Ferris State gets the Grand Rapids crumbs that Western Michigan leaves, Bemidji State is truly in a world of their own, Lake State is lost in the sea of OHL fans across the St. Mary’s River and a tiny town, and Northern Michigan has a far less ardent alumni base than Tech.
What could happen in the next few years that could address all of these factors? The first is Arizona State. The Old Dog suspects that ASU thought several Pac-12 schools would join them, but so far, there’s no real interest. The WCHA courted the Sun Devils, but demanded a travel funding arrangement like those that the Alaska schools provide to subsidize the other members. ASU promptly turned them down, but then got the cold shoulder from both the Big Ten and the NCHC.
The Old Dog thinks (without worrying about the budgets of the league) that the WCHA should make another overture to ASU. At the same time, they really should open up another “front” in the realignment wars—and that would be trying to persuade Air Force to join the WCHA. The Falcons really belong in the WCHA geographically.
With Air Force and ASU in the WCHA, that would plug the “DI” hole the WCHA is in. It would expand the media market for the league and—with twelve teams in a clean geographical split—would allow the WCHA to form two six team divisions.
In the East, we’d have Tech, NMU, LSSU, Ferris State, Huntsville and BGSU. The West would have Anchorage, Fairbanks, ASU, Mankato, Air Force, and Bemidji. The East teams (and the Alaska schools) might have to share media revenue unevenly to compensate the West teams for travel expenses.
But, ooh, what great competition! Each division could have a full home-and-home series (20 games) and leave room for four cross-over series every year, giving the league slate a balanced 28 game schedule for each team, and a chance to be in every location on a regular basis.
There’d be family drama (Frank Serratore at Air Force against brother Tom at Bemidji). Some of the key rivalries would be preserved (Tech-NMU, MSU-Bemidji, Anchorage-Fairbanks) and leave room for some gritty cross-over rivalries, too (ASU-Tech for starters). Of course, to do this, Air Force would have to be persuaded to leave Atlantic Hockey. They might not like leaving Army behind in AH, but the chance to play in the WCHA is something that could look very attractive, particularly if regular trips to ASU are part of the package.
The Old Dog and Mrs. Dog would like that one, too. Right now, Huntsville is the one Husky road series we can reasonably get to—but Tempe really isn’t any farther and going to Arizona in the winter is better than northern Alabama in any event.
And the playoff potential—whoo! Each Division could have two rounds of best-of-three series. Getting into the top four in each Division could be as hard-fought as any regular season schedule in the country. Then the two Division champs could play in the winner-take-all championship game. Toss in the WCHA’s on-campus playoff scheme, and the league could have the most attractive package of hockey in the country.
That could be an important media draw, too. While all of this has more “buts” than an environmental impact plan, it does seem to make a great deal of sense and would strengthen both college hockey in general and the WCHA in particular. I’d love to see it, and it could happen soon, too, if the WCHA could show the foresight they’ve displayed in setting up the on-campus playoff system.
But (there’s that word!) there’s the revenue and expense side of this, which is very real. It would be a gamble for the WCHA, for Air Force, and for Arizona State. The downside for ASU is probably small, but it’s certainly bigger for the Falcons, and they are a key piece of the puzzle. It’s also an uncertain venture for the rest of the WCHA, as travel expense increases would have to be more than offset with media revenue for this to work.
As we all wait for the Huskies and Bulldogs to go at it in the J-Mac this weekend, the Old Dog pleads with the WCHA leadership to think about it this way. Aren’t you already in a less-than-solid place? Is there more risk in the status-quo than in another serious change in the national picture?
Mike Anleitner is a 1972 Michigan Tech grad, and he was in the first class of what has become the Scientific & Technical Communications program. He also has an engineering degree from Wayne State and an MBA from Michigan-Ross. He spent forty seven years in various manufacturing and engineering positions, and is currently a semi-retired freelance engineer. He lives during the fall and winter with his wife of 49 years Carol–also a ’72 Tech grad–in Addison, TX, a Dallas suburb with more restaurants per capita than any other municipality in the US. During the summer, Mike and Carol reside in Elmira, MI and avoid the Texas heat.
Glad I’m not the only one. Getting ASU would be huge for the conference. Air Force would be gravy.
Any rubes complaining about flights who think otherwise need to pull their heads out of their rear ends.
Thanks for the note. Actually, I think Air Force is really important–it opens up so many things, including a balanced schedule every week, lower travel costs with a division structure, and another “full DI” program. But the real key is how aggressively and creatively the WCHA markets their FloTV internet deal. Right now, I’d say it’s been pretty low key. Getting greater revenue from that deal is what will make things happen. Another nationally known school (with broad appeal like the Air Force Academy) would help in doing that.
I’ve wondered about ASU myself, but had not considered Air Force. I love the idea and concept, this is a fun article that would be one can only dream will one day come to fruition.
This is the best possible scenario for the WCHA, but I just can’t see it happening. I think ASU is trying to show they can be more competitive, while they get the real arena built, and then they are likely in the NCHC by 2021. For the purposes of schedule balance, Mankato is then likely to get the invite to join them. The Phoenix TV market will offset the tiny Mankato TV market.
Tim, you might be right–but that wouldn’t be good for the Huskies.
This is only peripherally related to the topic at hand, but I’m afraid that today Michigan Tech is the odd man out from what once what a much more elite position. Of the old, 1970s WCHA teams, in what was then, arguably, the best league in college hockey, only Tech didn’t transition into either the Big Ten or the NCHC.
This was because, after the passing of John MacInnes, the program was allowed to languish. Really languish. We forget how influential John MacInnes personally was in putting Tech hockey into championship form.
Joining, or being relegated to, the old CCHA was a giant mistake. Tech, already a small market team with less visibility, simply disappeared from the radar.
Now Tech plays with much less high-profile programs, many of whom didn’t even have Division I hockey programs when Tech was a national power. Why do you think Coach Pearson ultimately opted to go to Michigan? Because Michigan is a premier program and Tech is not. I believe that Coach Pearson came, in part, to this conclusion. It pains me to say this, but Tech is never again going to be a premier hockey program. They let it slip away. It pains me to say this. But after many years of hoping that Tech would someone regain its once national prominence, it seems even less likely that this will ever happen.
I don’t disagree with anything you said, except for the implication that things can never change. Far-sighted and significant effort may be needed, and that may not be in Tech’s (or the WCHA’s) repertoire. But I believe that mediocrity is never inevitable.
“. . . it seems even less likely that this will ever happen.”
Didn’t mean to imply that the situation was inevitable. Tech hockey itself is no longer mediocre. We can, in large part, thank Coach Pearson for that.
But my point is that the program itself just can’t seem to elevate itself to national prominence. I was a student at Tech in the mid-1970s, when Tech played Minnesota in three straight NCAA National Championship games. I had the honor of watching Mike Zuke, and his teammates, play. I had the honor of meeting Coach MacInnes. Coach MacInnes was vital to the Tech hockey program. Tech played against the likes of Notre Dame, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. All visible national sports programs. Not only did Tech compete, they won much more than they lost to these national sports powers. Then Coach MacInnes passed and, for whatever reason, the program languished. Probably because Coach MacInnes literally made the program what it was. Without him, or someone very much like him, the program’s decline was inevitable.
Tech playing in the current WCHA makes it very difficult for Tech to elevate itself to national prominence. Is it possible? I wouldn’t completely count Coach Shawhan out, but it will take an extraordinary effort and extraordinary determination to make it happen. Is it possible? Sure and I really hope so. But is it likely? Only time will tell.
Thanks for another interesting article. I’d tend to agree, except that both ASU and AF are both better suited, logistically speaking, for the NCHC – especially if ASU’s program continues to improve. I could almost see that conference replacing both Miami and WMU, in order to retain an 8-team league. Miami and WMU would be an excellent fit in the WCHA, if the RedHawks and Broncos could mentally survive the humiliation of an effective relegation.
Tom B–Well, I’m worried that the WCHA thinks the status quo is fine. If they don’t do something dynamic, I’m worried that they will (again) be overrun by what the other conferences do. At some point, the WCHA will be marginalized even more than they are right now.
Your proposal might be something that would work, too, but it would be more of an NCHC initiative than a WCHA initiative. Again, the WCHA would be reacting to what NACHO does…
I trying to excite some enthusiasm for a proactive approach and not a reactionary attempt to cope with what the other conferences do.
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