Unfrozen: College hockey waters never ‘truly calm’ as landscape ever-changing

The Minnesota Gophers, seen here before an NCAA tournament game, currently compete in the Big Ten conference after many years playing in the WCHA.

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MINNEAPOLIS — In a world where (Big) Ten equals six (hockey-playing members in the conference) and (Final) Five amounts to four (teams in this weekend’s WCHA semifinal), nothing’s quite as it appears on the surface.

With conference tournaments commencing this weekend — two of them in the Twin Cities — the makeover of NCAA Division I men’s hockey is almost two full seasons in. Casual fans have had another year to figure out which sextet of Big Ten schools have varsity pucks programs, what teams are still in the WCHA and what NCHC stands for.

But those on the inside of #cawlidgehawkey, as SportsCenter anchor and ESPN hockey analyst John Buccigross likes to get trending on Twitter, think this could be the eye of the storm, not its outer edge.

"I don’t know if the waters are ever really, truly calm," first-year WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson said. "I think there’s been a settling right now for a bit, but I do see more changes arising in years to come in college hockey. I don’t think this is the last shift we’ll ever have, that’s for sure."

That’s because even with 2013’s creation of the Big Ten and National Collegiate Hockey Conference, which precipitated Robertson’s league losing and adding schools, another round of expansion and potential realignment looms.

There’s a big, maroon-and-gold domino with a pitchfork emblazoned on its front sitting in Tempe, Ariz. With Arizona State announcing in November its intentions to shift from highly successful club hockey to the Division I ranks, a whole platter of possibilities arises.

Once the Sun Devils decide on facilities, a financial model and other various start-up initiatives, they’ll need a conference. Robertson bullishly proclaimed his desire to add Arizona State to the WCHA’s already-massive footprint, and the Big Ten and NCHC are possibilities, as well.

Their reasons for being interested are manifold. Arizona State’s Tempe campus is the nation’s largest in terms of enrollment and features an expansive alumni base. It’ll boast Division I hockey’s only program in the American west or southwest, where the game is growing exponentially. It’s a part of the Pac-12, which has its own TV network.

And it could open the door to more programs in its neck of the woods adding Division I pucks.

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"I think the bigger piece of it is it’s a Power Five conference school, No. 1," said Robertson, who took over for longtime WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod last April. "No. 2, they provide the ability to get us exposure into the Southwest, into the West Coast, where there are a lot more hockey players coming.

"I think it’s the tip of the iceberg as far as other West Coast schools becoming Division I hockey programs."

Robertson, the Minnesota Wild’s vice president of communications and broadcasting from 1999-2011, served in a similar position for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim during their early-90s inception. Wayne Gretzky’s foray with the Los Angeles Kings was taking place simultaneously, and the NHL added the San Jose Sharks (1991) and Phoenix Coyotes (1996) to the Pacific time zone around the same time.

That’s when top-level professional hockey became prevalent in markets it had never before tested, and its effects continue to ripple. Today, 50 men’s Division I players hail from California, and top 2016 draft prospect Auston Matthews grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., attending Coyotes games.

College hockey folks are interested in keeping the trend rolling.

"What would it do for the game in California if USC, UCLA, Stanford, had Penn State-like programs and much of their roster were California kids?" Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey Inc., asked in an interview with FOXSportsNorth.com. "Just like the Kings and the Ducks and the Sharks, that’d be another external influencer in having a 6-year-old boy or girl say to their mom or dad, ‘I want to play hockey.’

"I think that the growth of NCAA Division I men’s hockey is an opportunity to impact the overall growth of the sport in our country that has not at all been tapped yet."

Bringing together representatives from the NHL, USA Hockey and Penn State, Snee helped create a strategic plan called "the Campus Effect" that aided Arizona State in its Division I hockey launch. In reaching out to Arizona State and other institutions, the group uses Penn State’s rapid success as a blueprint; the Nittany Lions began NCAA play in 2012, frequently sell out games at Pegula Ice Arena, and have turned around $1 million in net revenue, according to reports.

Snee said his organization is in talks with at least four other schools about potentially adding Division I men’s hockey.

The sport’s optimists, including Sun Devils coach Greg Powers, believe Arizona State’s breakthrough could be the first step toward Pac-12 pucks. USC, UCLA and Arizona have traditionally strong club programs and are rumored to consider a move similar to Arizona State’s someday.

I think that the growth of NCAA Division I men’s hockey is an opportunity to impact the overall growth of the sport in our country that has not at all been tapped yet.

Mike Snee

But it’s not limited to the west. Murmurs have some Big Ten, Big 12 and even east coast schools mulling the notion of Division I men’s hockey.  The list includes Nebraska, Northwestern, Rhode Island, Buffalo, Alabama, Georgia and Georgia Tech, among others.

"I think we’re still hoping Arizona State is the next domino," said Big Ten associate commissioner Jennifer Heppel, who’s in charge of men’s hockey. "Penn State, they did it right. They’re the blueprint, the gold standard, for how to start a program and be successful. But I think we’re very early in the dominoes-falling stage — the first one’s still halfway over."

Every time another falls, though, the expansion and realignment conversation will flare up again. Add one school, and conference officials would like another to even out their numbers for scheduling and postseason purposes.

But all three commissioners of conferences with a Minnesota presence told FOXSportsNorth.com that continued expansion, overall, is good for the sport. There are currently 59 Division I men’s ice hockey teams, and each one added means more potential media exposure, TV revenue and — in the case of a six-team league like the Big Ten — conference games.

"No question, it’s good," NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton said. "It’s still a very niche and regionalized sport, but I think the growth of hockey in the country to the credit of USA Hockey and the National Hockey League has now pushed us into markets that people get it."

It doesn’t happen with the speed or precision of a point wrist shot from University of Minnesota defenseman and Hobey Baker Award finalist Mike Reilly, however.

Facilities present the greatest hurdle for schools thinking about adding Division I hockey. Title IX means some institutions might have to add a second sport for women. And programs aren’t guaranteed to churn out revenue the way Penn State has.

Arizona State’s relying on $32 million from a pool of private donors, and that’ll only last the program 10 years before the athletic department assumes hockey’s financial burden.

"As optimistic as we are and excited as we are about this project," Snee said, "there are still a lot of questions that need be answered, and they’re not easily answered because they involve significant amounts of money."

Recent NCAA legislation that allows schools to provide additional athlete stipends that match "total cost of attendance" clouds the picture, too. Currently, Division I men’s college hockey programs have 18 scholarships to dole out as they please, but the changes have sparked fear of a greater separation between the haves and have-nots.

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The defending national champion, Union, doesn’t even award athletic scholarships. All of the school’s other sports compete at the Division III level.

"It’s evolving," Fenton said. "I think institutions are still trying to figure it out. I would say this: Is it going to have an impact on a sport like ice hockey? I think it will. To what extent, I’m not sure yet."

So, for now, college hockey’s power brokers will keep at least one eye on the ice. The WCHA Final Five starts Friday at the Xcel Energy Center — and will be broadcast live on FOX Sports North — and the NCHC’s second Frozen Four begins the same day at the Target Center.

The Big Ten, meanwhile, began postseason play at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena on Thursday night.

Hockey’s version of Selection Sunday is two days away. The Big Ten could have one or two entrants, while the WCHA and NCHC each expect at least three, depending on what happens around the rest of the country.

But change is coming again. It’s just a matter of when and how.

"Do I think down the line, five years from now, the conferences will look like they do today?" said Minnesota coach Don Lucia, whose squad plays Ohio State at 4:30 p.m. on Friday and has the Big Ten’s only realistic shot of an at-large NCAA bid. "If I was betting, I’d probably say no."

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