Players, coaches excited about new Big Ten hockey conference

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Big Ten hockey. Something about it still sounds odd.

Gone are decades-long rivalries from conferences such as the WCHA or CCHA. In-state rivals are a thing of the past — or at least are much more limited. But for the six teams joining the new Big Ten Conference in men’s hockey, the excitement was certainly present Thursday at the conference’s media day at the Xcel Energy Center.

In their eyes, this fresh start is the beginning of something big.

“I think from our perspective, I think it is exciting. I think from the players’ perspective, the newness and freshness of a new league, it adds that added excitement,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. “I think there is a little trepidation with some of the fans at times, but I do believe that they’re going to see we’re going to have at Minnesota the best of both worlds. We’re part of the Big Ten.”

The Gophers will be joined by Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin in the new six-team league. There is certainly a rich hockey tradition at many of those programs; they’ve combined to win 23 NCAA championships and have produced nine Hobey Baker winners over the years.

Then there’s Penn State, which begins its second year of Division I hockey. Those same Nittany Lions earned wins over Wisconsin and Ohio State a year ago, showing that even the newcomers won’t be pushovers in the Big Ten.

“Everyone’s going to be good, that’s for sure,” said Michigan senior Mac Bennett. “All of these programs are really, really great programs. They’re all pretty historic programs. Even Penn State, they’re a great program already. … Every game is going to be a big rivalry game and it’s going to be a game that you have to show up for. You can’t take a night off.”

For many, one of the biggest benefits of moving to the Big Ten will be the exposure (and the revenue) generated by the conference’s television station, the Big Ten Network. More than 70 Big Ten hockey games will be televised this year, with 27 on the Big Ten Network alone.

Now, fans across the country will be able to watch games they might not have otherwise been able to see in years past. Coaches hope it will provide a boost in recruiting as prospective players will now be able to see first-hand what these schools are doing.

And for players who come from far and wide to play at the six Big Ten schools, their families and friends will now be able to watch them from locations that previously weren’t capable of doing so.

“Even in Canada where I’m from, my whole family will have Big Ten Network on their TV,” said Ohio State senior defenseman Curtis Gedig, a native of British Columbia. “It’s been tough for them. They’ve sort of had to stream it off the Internet or something. … Streaming off the Internet sometimes doesn’t cut it.”

After winning the WCHA tournament last year and earning an NCAA tournament berth, the Wisconsin Badgers were picked to win the Big Ten in the preseason poll, as voted on by the coaches. Minnesota was voted to finish second, while Michigan was slated to finish third. Michigan State and Ohio State tied for fourth in the preseason poll, while Penn State was sixth.

In college hockey, leadership from upperclassmen is huge. Wisconsin’s roster boasts nine seniors and seven juniors, perhaps the biggest reason it was picked to finish first in the Big Ten’s inaugural season.

“I don’t think it changes anything we do in terms of our expectations and the way we want to conduct our business,” Badgers head coach Mike Eaves said of being named the favorites. “It’s just a pretty natural position to be in because of the upperclassmen we have on the team.”

One new wrinkle in the Big Ten that will be foreign to some college hockey fans will be the shootout. The WCHA, for instance, did not use shootouts to settle ties, although the CCHA installed shootouts in recent years.

That means there will be no ties in the Big Ten as it employs a similar tiebreaking method as the NHL.

“From the aspect of a fan, I think it’s tremendous. In the game of ice hockey now people get excited about fights, goals and shootouts,” Eaves said. “I think it really appeals to the public that they’re going to have something like this.”

Of course, there’s still the question of rivalries. Minnesota and Wisconsin have a built-in one as neighboring states, and Michigan and Michigan State always look forward to playing each other as in-state rivals. Given the nature of familiarity with the Big Ten schools from other sports — namely football and basketball — it may be just a matter of time before Penn State vs. Michigan or Minnesota vs. Ohio State become hockey rivalries.

Legendary Wolverines coach Red Berenson is entering his 30th season at the helm. He fondly remembers his playing days at Michigan in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the Wolverines would play Minnesota, a hockey power at the time. The 73-year-old Berenson believes that type of tradition can continue with the new conference.

“Whenever we played Minnesota, you could tell just from the fans it was like a Stanley Cup game,” Berenson said Thursday. “I’m hoping that’s what we get back into this conference, and I think we will. Our students expect it, our fans expect it and our players will learn to expect it.”

There are still plenty of unknowns as to how things will unfold in the Big Ten’s first year of college hockey. Fans may certainly be slower to adapt than the players. After all, at some Minnesota games last year, for example, Gophers fans booed the advertisements for the Big Ten Network. There’s no doubt that the hockey purists may miss the old conferences.

In the end, however, those involved feel this transition will only help hockey in the Big Ten — and college hockey in general.

“College hockey is a different product than pro hockey where you have fans, student sections, school colors, you have the passion of alums,” said Michigan State coach Tom Anastos. “For the Big Ten Conference, from what I’ve learned, our alums span from coast to coast, and this is a great opportunity to reconnect in a different way in a different sport to many of those alums in different markets. … I have no doubt what we see in the Big Ten will work and grow.”

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