It isn’t going away: A fair number of Gopher hockey fans seem to wish the whole concept of departing the Western Collegiate Hockey Association next season and embarking on a new future in the Big Ten would just evaporate. I don’t think these people are necessarily hockey Luddites. It’s just that they don’t see why a perfectly good product like the WCHA should arbitrarily be abandoned in favor of something new and, to many, less appealing.
The tradition-rich WCHA as we know it will disband at the end of this year’s WCHA Final Five. It will lose all but a handful of teams to the Big Ten and the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference. A new member, Alabama-Huntsville (until now, the last Division I independent) will join the WCHA as will a number of transfers from the soon-to-be-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association. And, of course, the Gophers and Wisconsin will jump ship to the new Big Ten league along with Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State.
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So far, that’s all most people know.
Here are some questions and answers that will help fill in a few blanks.
Q: Why Big Ten hockey in the first place?
A: Mostly, it’s about the money. Conference presidents and athletic directors feel there’s a significant upside to the new conference, even though, by 2014, it will represent only 43 percent of the league’s member schools.
A big part of the projected new revenue stream will come from television. The Big Ten Network, which is partly owned by the league, projects many more hockey broadcasts. The new league wants as much TV exposure and revenue as it can generate.
Q: Will the new league play games on the usual Friday-Saturday schedule?
A: Not a chance. There might be a few of those but, for the most part, the Big Ten Network wants east-west doubleheaders on Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays and other schedules.
Q: Are any more Big Ten schools considering adding hockey programs?
A: Not at the moment. Maryland will join the league in a couple of years and there hasn’t been a peep from that side of the country concerning a possible Terrapins hockey team. Ditto for most current Big Ten schools.
The reasons vary. For Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue: scant interest. Northwestern? A glut of hockey teams of every level in the Chicago area. Rutgers? The school will enter the Big Ten in 2014 and has a long tradition of club hockey, the first Ice Knights game being played against Princeton in 1892. The closest the school ever came to a move to varsity hockey seems to have come in 1961. There’s also no rink.
That leaves Nebraska. Maybe. There has been some talk in Lincoln that Division I hockey might be a good thing. Gopher head coach Don Lucia certainly thinks so. He told the Gopher Blue Line Club last week: “I think Division I hockey at Nebraska would be very successful and would be a good idea.”
No concrete move has been made publicly to move the Cornhuskers to D I hockey, however.
Q: If schools add hockey programs, don’t they have to do it for both men and women?
A: Yes. And that’s a major financial drawback in areas where the men’s game might conceivably succeed but where women playing hockey is still an odd concept.
Q: What will the schedule look like starting next season?
A: Minnesota refuses to release schedule information until after this season. However, I do know the general plan. Each Big Ten team will play each other team four times: twice at home, twice on the road. That’s 24 games. Which leaves a handful of dates in which longtime Gopher rivals who will become non-conference opponents can be plugged in. No, North Dakota is not on the menu for at least three more seasons. Yes, UM-D and St. Cloud State are: the Bulldogs at Mariucci for two games around Thanksgiving, the Huskies later in the year.
There’s also the tournament of in-state schools that will feature Minnesota, UM-D, St. Cloud State and Minnesota State-Mankato next January. Bemidji State is not currently included in that one but could be in the future.
The regular season will be slightly shorter next year, too: Minnesota loses the so-called “Alaska Exemption” since the Gophers will no longer schedule Alaska-Anchorage.
Q: Will there be a conference tournament similar to the WCHA Final Five?
A: Yes. At the end of the regular season, the Big Ten tournament will be played at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. It will alternate years between the “X” and Detroit.
Q: Have we heard the end of the griping about the move to the Big Ten?