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It’s official: Big Ten Hockey Conference becomes a reality

Submitted by on March 23, 2011No Comment

Sound the alarm, lock your doors, stockpile those non-perishables. The long dreaded BTHC is on the verge of becoming reality.

Finally confirming one of the worst kept secrets in college sports, the Big Ten announced their intentions to recommend establishing men’s ice hockey as an official conference sport. Joining Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, and Wisconsin, Penn State will officially begin Big Ten play in 2013-14.

The recommendation to Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors includes both the establishment of the inaugural Big Ten Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament in March of 2014, with the winner earning the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Championship, and a 20-game conference schedule with each team playing the other five schools four times (two home games and two away games).

Once considered just a distant pipe dream that haunted hockey fans of tiny hockey schools across the Midwest, the BTHC (Big Ten Hockey Conference) has always remained a looming threat that would never materialize thanks to the financial burden of Title IX. The Big Ten requires that six member institutions sponsor a sport before an official conference can be established but for a sixth Big Ten program to add men’s hockey, Title IX would require the addition of a women’s sporting team and the subsequent scholarships as well. The financial burden was simply too much for the remaining institutions to bear especially during a time when other athletic programs are struggling.

That was before Terry Pegula stepped in with a $88 million donation to Penn State. Thanks to the Pegulas, Penn State was not only able to build a brand new hockey arena, but establish both a men’s and a women’s varsity team. The Big Ten finally had it’s six hockey schools and did not hesitate to pull the trigger. The idea of Big Ten hockey televised to a national audience on the league’s network was simply too much to pass up. The 20 conference games each Big Ten squad will play amongst each other will amount to over 100 B1G prime time matches that will be available for the Big Ten Network to carry.

The 6 hockey schools also fulfills the Big Ten’s requirement to host a conference championship that will most likely become an instant hit within it’s hockey crazed footprint. The six league squads will also fulfill the NCAA requirement of a six team minimum for conferences to qualify for an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

But as many college hockey fans have feared all along and with any conference realignment, the formation of the BTHC will send shockwaves through the college hockey landscape. By poaching Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State from the CCHA, and Minnesota and Wisconsin away from the WCHA the Big Ten Hockey Conference is essentially stripping both leagues of their biggest programs and draws. Four of the five departing programs, Michigan State, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan have won a combined 23 national championships. It won’t be easy to replace such tradition laden teams.

And though the losses will affect both the CCHA and WCHA competitively, it won’t come close to the financial repercussion that both leagues will suffer. The CCHA, reduced down to 8 teams and the WCHA down to 10 will be losing some of the biggest media markets and fan bases that many of their smaller schools depend on to maintain attendance, ticket sales and television revenue. As rabid as the fan bases are in Ferris State, Bemijdi State and the University of Denver, they are still largely dependent on the Wolverine, Spartan, Buckeye, Gopher and Badger fans to fill their venues, attend conference tournaments and especially during negotiations for television rights and revenue. Without the big name draws of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State, the CCHA and WCHA will have a much tougher time selling both the networks and their fans on games between Lake Superior and Bowling Green or Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State on a consistent basis.

Though both the CCHA and WCHA have tried to put on a brave face in response to the Big Ten’s announcement, it is clear neither conferences nor their remaining institutions are thrilled. In an attempt to alleviate the bleeding, the Big Ten schools have expressed it’s continuing commitment to schedule their old rivals in the CCHA and WCHA in non-conference play which should help limit the impact of their departure. The proposed BTHC format will have teams play four games against each of their 5 conference opponents adding up to 20 B1G games a season, leaving 14-16 games in the 34 game schedule available for non-conference opponents providing more than enough opportunities for games against old CCHA and WCHA rivals as well as the possibility of Big Ten squads expanding eastward to play blockbuster opponents like BC and BU.

Originally when Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State were part of the 11 team CCHA, approximately 28 of the 34 game schedule had already been accounted for, locked in for conference play leaving just 6 games available against non-conference opponents. Now with the formation of the 6 member BTHC, conference games only account for 20 of the 34 game schedule leaving far more flexibility in scheduling non-conference opponents which will also promote greater variety during non conference play. Reducing the CCHA and WCHA to 8 and 10 squads respectively should also help do the same.

Competitively, the formation of the BTHC should help the remaining squads in the CCHA and WCHA. Not only will they still hold onto their auto bids, the remaining programs will now have an opportunity to compete for a tournament spot in a conference devoid of the Minnesotas, Wisconsins, Michigans, and Michigan States of the hockey world. As it currently stands with 5 of the existing Big Ten teams split into  2 conferences, it is not unusual to see multiple Big Ten teams in the NCAA tournament in a single year. Both the Gophers and Badgers usually only play just two games against Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State – combined! But in the new B1G conference, they will soon be playing 16 games a year against Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State in addition to their 4 games against each other instead of the 2 total against similar competition they do now. This will provide an unique opportunity for the remaining members of the CCHA and WCHA to rise to the top should there be a void left by the departing members.

Those who cry doom and gloom about the future of the CCHA and WCHA forget that the CCHA is now entering it’s 41st season of play and the WCHA it’s 60th. Losing Minnesota and Wisconsin will be tough, but it is not impossible to think that traditional strong programs like North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College and Minnesota-Duluth can step up to carry the WCHA and as long as Notre Dame and Miami (OH) can hold the fort the CCHA will survive as well. Like WCHA Commissioner Bruce M. McLeod said following the Big Ten’s announcement, “change creates opportunity, too. The timeline of this Association spans seven decades and has included expansion and contraction on numerous occasions, but the success of this organization has remained constant.”

The creation of the BTHC is the perfect opportunity for expansion. Especially for other Big Ten schools interested in starting varsity hockey but was until recently forced to wait due to the saturated nature of existing hockey conferences. Illinois for example is currently still a member of the CSCHL within the American College Hockey League (ACHL), the same league Penn State has been operating under before the move to Division I status. Should Big Ten teams like Illinois want to re explore the possibility of upgrading their ACHL status to Division I play, the Big Ten Hockey Conference will provide a stable and attractive option for them. The creation of the BTHC and the reduction of the CCHA and WCHA to 8 and 10 teams respectively, opens up spots for expansion that didn’t exist prior to the BTHC. Even teams like Alabama-Huntsville could very well benefit from the new open spots in the CCHA and WCHA.

Many of the affected schools have responded to the Big Ten’s announcement and not everyone is panicking over it, Miami (OH), Bowling Green, Lake Superior and Ferris State, Western Michigan, Minnesota State Mankato are optimistic about their futures. Some like Notre Dame, Alabama-Huntsville, Nothern Michigan are a little more apprehensive. And others are downright unhappy about it; Nebraska-Omaha.

Change is imminent, and it’s not always easy, but the possibility of college hockey expanding across the country should excite hockey fans. The notion that the BTHC is bad simply because of the uncertainty it brings to teams that aren’t self-sufficient is shortsighted and a tad self serving. Tradition is not an excuse to impede progress especially if it promotes the growth of the sport.

And to think, all Terry Pegula wanted was a Division I Penn State hockey team.

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