Two years in, new Big Ten hockey conference still a mixed bag

Like with seemingly everything else in America these days, the Northland currently finds itself bitterly polarized over the niche sport it holds so dear: college hockey.

For generations, college hockey was a world unto itself.  Unlike other Division I sports which are organized by the familiar conference system, college hockey was divided into micro-regional leagues.  The Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) featured powerhouses like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota (along with the four other D-I programs located in the State of Minnesota).  The Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) featured notables such as Michigan, Michigan State, Western Michigan, and Ohio State. But beginning last season, the Big Ten inaugurated a new era of college hockey by forming its very own six team conference.  For many college hockey fans, this major conference pariah was going to change everything.  And not for the better.

The organizational linchpin to the deal was the elevation of Penn State to Division I.  This paved the way for a six team conference featuring the fledgling Nittany Lions along with Minnesota and Wisconsin from the WCHA and Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State from the CCHA.  But make no mistake about it, the REAL driver behind the formation of a Big Ten hockey conference was none other than the increasingly omnipotent Big Ten Network.  Seeking additional winter programming to augment its slate of men’s and women’s college basketball, the suits at BTN had an idea for a Friday night doubleheader of conference hockey and when there is a will, there is most certainly a way.  It was only a matter of time before “Frozen Friday” became a reality.  Indeed, now that BTN has proven to be a cash cow beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, it is hardly surprising that its member schools were only too happy to secede from their ancient leagues to join the new conference.

While the financial success of the Big Ten hockey conference was assured, what remained to be seen was the financial impact this major shake-up would have on everybody else.  With the WCHA and CCHA’s biggest draws no longer in the fold, massive re-alignment was inevitable.  Key members of both leagues (North Dakota, Denver University, Colorado College, St. Cloud State, Minnesota-Duluth, and Miami of Ohio) got together to form the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC).  Meanwhile, the smaller schools left out of the new NCHC pooled their resources into a revamped WCHA.  Although ancient college hockey rivalries like Minnesota vs North Dakota will still be preserved via annual non-conference matchups (and Minnesota even went so far as to schedule an annual “North Star College Cup,” a holiday tournament between the Golden Gophers and the other Division-I hockey teams in the state), nothing will ever be the same now that the big schools and smaller schools are no longer in the same leagues.  No matter how heated, no early season non-conference series can surpass late season divisional rivalries with hardware (and NCAA tournament bids) on the line.

So what is the state of college hockey two years into the new reality?

For starters, while the Big Ten conference is obviously the winner financially, the same cannot be said for the on-ice product.  Although Minnesota made it all the way to the national championship game in the conference’s first season (before losing to Union), the quality of play in the Big Ten has lagged behind almost every other league.  As of this writing, five of the NCHC’s eight teams are not only ranked, but are ranked in the top 8 (including North Dakota at #1).  And while the new WCHA only has three ranked teams, Minnesota State and Michigan Tech are #2 and #3 respectively.  If you compare this to the Big Ten, where only Minnesota and Michigan are ranked (#15 and #17 respectively), the disparity in talent is obvious.  Indeed, if one were to conduct a league by league comparison of all Division I leagues, the Big Ten would undoubtedly be ranked fifth out of six in overall quality and talent.  If the season ended today, it is likely that Minnesota would be the only Big Ten participant in the NCAA tournament.  Indeed, one could easily argue that the Minnesota’s and Michigan’s of the world would be better off in tougher conferences because beating bad teams like Wisconsin and Ohio State do absolutely nothing for their PairWise ranking (the college hockey equivalent of the RPI, which determines who gets at-large births into the NCAA tournament).

As time goes by, it is quite likely that college hockey will more firmly settle into its new reality.  But thus far, the “rivalries” being foisted upon Big Ten schools still feel forced and unnatural.  Minnesota and Michigan will undoubtedly become real rivals one day, but right now, the Wolverines can’t hold a candle to North Dakota in the eyes of Gopher fans. And while there have been some success stories, most notably the brand new Penn State program which has already blown away the basketball team in campus-wide support (the nickname “Hockey Valley” has already stuck at the consistently sold out Pegula Ice Arena), fans of the Northland are still pining for their old WCHA and CCHA leagues.

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