The shape of college hockey will be changing in 2013. Right now, there are four power conferences: The Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA), ECAC, and Hockey East. But that's all changing this summer. Two new conferences have emerged out west and they've raided the top teams from the WCHA and CCHA.
The Big Ten is coming to college hockey. Five Big Ten members already field Division 1 programs, with Penn State joining them in 2012. And in 2013, the Big Ten will appropriate (take) two teams from WCHA: Minnesota and Wisconsin. They'll absorb three teams from CCHA: Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State. These teams are some of the best from the WCHA and CCHA.
Not only has the Big Ten plundered those two conferences, six teams (5 from the WCHA and 1 from the CCHA) have decided to form a new power conference: The National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC). 2011 National Champs Minnesota-Duluth will join perennial powerhouse North Dakota, along with Denver, Colorado College, and Nebraska-Omaha. CCHA will "donate" Miami (OH) to the new conference. These were the best 6 teams remaining in the WCHA and CCHA after the Big Ten defections.
Notre Dame's fate still remains up in the air. The NCHC has been courting them, and it would make sense geographically for them to join. And considering that the CCHA is now a shell of what it once was, Notre Dame almost must move in order to maintain its program's prominence.
Another possibility for the Irish is to join Hockey East. The ECAC and Hockey East have remained untouched by this drama. But Hockey East would probably love to add a national program on Notre Dame's level. Geography is a bit of a problem, but the idea of Notre Dame vs. BC bringing their rivalry to the ice is very appealing.
Notre Dame has a national fanbase. Their hockey program is on the rise. Wherever they wind up, whether it's the NCHC or Hockey East, they're going to welcomed with open arms.
What I like about all this shuffling and maneuvering is that the power conferences have gotten smaller, but more powerful. Big Ten Hockey's members have combined to win 23 NCAA titles. The NCHC's members have won 17. Compare that to Hockey East's 11, the ECAC's 5, the WCHA's 4, and the CCHA's 4.
I wouldn't be shocked if, within a few years, some realignment occurs here in the northeast. As the struggle for TV money increases, especially with these two new conferences in play, power programs like BU and BC might seek to separate themselves from the UMass-Lowell's of the world, and perhaps align with other power programs from the ECAC like Cornell.
This is just speculation, but one day Hockey East might look like this: BC, BU, Northeastern, Notre Dame, Maine, UNH, Cornell, and Yale.
And I think while this is bad news for about half of the programs in college hockey, it's also beneficial for the game as a whole. Schools with national fanbases like Notre Dame, Michigan, and Ohio State can help bring new fans to the game. But they're going to do that by playing other top tier programs and rivals, not by playing Lake Superior State.
College hockey also needs large schools to put money into their programs. UConn, for instance, has a D-1 program, but they don't reward the full number of scholarships that they could. Syracuse only has a club level program, which is odd considering there are 10 Division 1 programs in New York. If Colgate, Clarkson, Union and RPI can field D-1 teams, why not Syracuse? Colorado, Northwestern, and Pittsburgh are all in regions where hockey is widely played. Yet Colorado is in D-3 and Northwestern and Pitt field only club teams.
College hockey is always going to be a regional thing, but like all other college sports, the powerhouses are what draw fans to the game, they're the ones that draw TV money and media attention. And unlike other sports, these conferences only exist in just one sport: hockey. It's not like the ACC, which has its football powers and its basketball powers, and they're all able to support each other. I want to see conferences that are ridiculously good from top to bottom. That makes the regular season interesting, as opposed to the 22 week warm-up to the NCAA Tournament that it currently is.