We're less than a month away from the launch of the new Big Ten hockey conference, which will field six teams. On March 21st, 2011, the Big Ten shook up the landscape of college hockey when they announced they'd be launching their own conference. This followed the steps taken by the Penn State athletic department to launch a Penn State Division 1 men's hockey program in 2010. In addition to PSU, the conference will also field perennial national powers Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin to go along with Michigan State and Ohio State.
With the growth of college hockey during the past ten years, the move by the Big Ten was a landscape altering one, and with the Big Ten Network, fans will get to see more and more of their schools of allegiance's hockey teams each year. The Big Ten Network is set to air 22 regular season games as well as all five of the Big Ten Tournament games from St. Paul, Minnesota. Of the league's 22 regular season games, you'll be able to watch the Buckeyes live six times on BTN.
In terms of the new conference's bonafides, the league garners at its inception 23 national titles with four of the six teams having championships in their respective histories. Michigan accounts for 9, which is the best in the country, followed by Wisconsin (6), Minnesota (5) and Michigan State (3). The league can also lay claim to 9 Hobey Baker Award winners, all again coming from the same four schools with national championships to their names. If you're unacquainted, the Baker is effectively the Heisman Trophy for college hockey and is named after the World War I veteran and Princeton University hockey great of the same name. The award's first ever recipient back in 1981? Neal Broten from the University of Minnesota.
So with a ton of rich history and tradition from its outset, what does the league have planned to take the next step and put itself firmly amongst college hockey's power broke leagues? If a school like Ohio State is able to make the proverbial leap, it'll go a long way towards helping to more quickly jump start the new B1G's legitimacy.
The Buckeyes have been playing college hockey since 1963 and during that span have made but one Frozen Four appearance back in 1998 where they lost to Boston University, who ultimately ended up winning the national title. Since that '98 season, Ohio State has made five more NCAA Tournaments but with nothing particularly to show for it. Steve Rohlik, who is in his first season as the head man behind the bench, is going to have his work cut out for him after losing some top recruits following the termination of his previous boss last season's hockey coach, Mark Osiecki.
In terms of potential new launching off point for the league, the green-as-can-be historically Penn State Nittany Lions represent a real opportunity, though they are just in their second year of NCAA hockey. As an Independent team last season, Penn State went 13-14, though had big wins over Wisconsin in OT, Ohio State, and Michigan State. We will see if head coach Guy Gadowsky and his staff will be able build on last season in order to find success despite being relatively behind the curve of their conference mates. The Nittany Lions will open up their season against Army, which will be televised on BTN on October 11th.
So what about the mistakes the league made during its genesis? Perhaps one bit of short-sightedness was the league limiting itself to exclusively Big Ten member institutions. The Big Ten's recently announced lacrosse league found a willing partner (and academic profile glove-like-fit) in Johns Hopkins as an affiliate member; so why not add a similar arrangement with a team of the mold of the Miami University RedHawks? Though intrastate power politics probably factored in (as well as an economic desire to keep all revenue in house), it's not as though the RedHawks wouldn't further add legitimacy to the new league.
Miami has made 8 NCAA Tournaments in a row, where as the Buckeyes have only ever made six in their entire history. The Buckeyes have also played 15 additional seasons of hockey than the RedHawks during their respective histories. Though six team seems like an awfully small makeup, could the league make up for lost time and bulk up in future years if the competitive landscape proves necessary? Could others schools jump on board and start a hockey program? Without a Terrence Pegula (Sabres owner, Penn State alumnus, and multibillionaire) to jump start other programs around the full league or an academic-economic no brainer like Hopkins (who also have their owner national broadcasting deal with ESPNU for home games which the league is allowing them to continue), it's not likely
While exciting, the new Big Ten isn't without downsides. The storied North Dakota-Minnesota rivalry will impact fans of each of those programs the same way the end of the Notre Dame-Michigan football rivalry will shortly. Fans will also have to learn to do without the WCHA tournament, better known as the Final Five, which was held at the Xcel Energy Center where this year's Big Ten tournament will be held. The Final Five was probably the best conference tournament in the country, with the opportunity to see North Dakota, Denver, Minnesota and Wisconsin all in the same building possible. Additionally we won't see Ohio State playing Notre Dame on the regular anymore, and with only six teams in the Big Ten, fans will miss out on on-campus postseason tournament action to boot.
In terms of how the Big Ten's inaugural season plays out, I expect Wisconsin should be the favorite to claim the league's regular season honors, with Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State next in order. As we get closer and closer to the action, you'll be able to watch the first Big Ten hockey action of the new era on BTN when Buckeyes travel to Ann Arbor to take on the Wolverines November 29th at 7:15, just one night before this year's iteration of The Game.