It wouldn't be the offseason without some spicy conference realignment news, and this year has already delivered. Last night, it was reported that Notre Dame would leave the prestigious Hockey East conference to join the Big Ten for the 2017-2018 season. That gives the Big Ten seven hockey playing schools in the conference, and creates a lot of questions, not just for hockey, but for the conference as a whole.
Why would Notre Dame join the Big Ten for hockey?
On purely competitive grounds, this might not make a lot of immediate sense for the Irish. The Hockey East conference is excellent, including traditional powers like Boston College and Boston University, and sends multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament. The Irish have been competitive in this conference, grabbing an NCAA bid this season.
But the logistics have been complicated. Everybody else in the Hockey East is in New England, forcing awkward travel arrangements for the Irish, and everybody else. The entire conference has had to shift their schedule to accommodate Notre Dame, which could make it an awkward long term fit. With the Big Ten, Notre Dame gets to renew old rivalries with programs like Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, improve travel considerations, and be a part of a league with large, peer athletic departments. Plus, the hope is that the Big Ten can grow into a conference power.
Wait, the Big Ten isn't a hockey power right now?
Nope. Many individual schools in the Big Ten have enjoyed major hockey success at times, and many also have large fanbases, but since the Big Ten formed, the league has struggled a bit. Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State have fallen off, Penn State (while improving significantly) is still a very new program, and thanks to some unlucky bounces and a small conference size, the B1G has failed to get more than a single NCAA bid for the last two years.
Attendance and interest have also fallen a bit. Average attendance at Wisconsin fell by over 30,000 fans compared to last season, and attendance at the neutral site Big Ten Tournament has been poor every season. Adding another successful program should help jump start the league.
Will the Big Ten stay at seven teams? That seems like a bit of an awkward number.
They've refrained from publicly speculating about it for now, but common sense would indicate that moving to eight teams (at least) would probably make the most sense, since scheduling with an odd number of teams is a headache, and the league would probably get a greater competitive boost with more than seven programs. It's possible they don't get to eight in time for the 2017-2018 season, but it seems probable they get there eventually. The Big Ten could expand by having a member institution start a D1 hockey team, or by adding another affiliate member.
Could a current Big Ten institution add a hockey team in the near future?
It's possible, but it doesn't seem especially likely. Even though many Big Ten schools have successful club hockey programs, and many Big Ten schools are in states that produce D1 caliber hockey talent, the start-up costs make a quick turnaround difficult. A school would need to add women's sports to accommodate Title IX, an arena, coach, and the resources to compete against the Minnesotas of the world. Nebraska has been floated as a possibility (they at least have the arena), and Illinois and Rutgers have successful club programs who on paper would be good fits, but it would be unlikely either of them would make the jump up in the near future, unless a new, very generous donor, decided it was time.
What about possible affiliate members?
The name you are probably hearing the most is Arizona State. It wouldn't be the first time ASU has been tied to the Big Ten for hockey, and at least one media member is picking them as the current favorites.
ASU would make sense for many of the realignment reasons we typically associate with football programs. ASU is near a major TV market and metropolitan area with many Big Ten alums. It is an enormous school, and more importantly, they need a stable conference home at the moment. The Big Ten and the NCHC, which has programs in Colorado and Nebraska, are likely to make calls to the Sun Devils, and ASU could conceivably pick either one.
There are some reasons why this might not happen, or might not be a good idea, though. For one, Arizona State is a very new D1 program, and they just aren't very good right now. ASU finished 5-22-2 as an independent last season, and given the logistics of ramping up a new program, plus the massive travel they'll face playing basically anybody, it could be several years before ASU is ready to compete among the best teams in the Big Ten. If the goal is to improve fan interest and competitive standing, this isn't a great fit.
Plus, it might not be a stable one. Several Pac-12 schools also have competitive club teams (in the aptly-named 'Pac-8') and if more schools out west start programs, ASU would probably bolt to join them. Any affiliate membership the Big Ten offers probably can't be counted on to last for a long time.
Are there other possible candidates?
Nobody has been reported yet, but there are a few that at least on paper, make some sense. The biggest name out there is North Dakota, currently in the NCHC. North Dakota is a public school in the midwest, brings manageable travel, and most importantly, is awesome at hockey. Perennially one of the best teams in the country, North Dakota brings a rabid fanbase that travels well, high level competition, and would unquestionably improve the Q score, and the computer profile, of Big Ten hockey. Whether they would be interested in leaving their league, is the biggest question.
There are other programs in the NCHC that fit a similar profile. Miami (OH) has been a great hockey program, has strong academics and already sits in the Big Ten footprint, although maybe Ohio State wouldn't be thrilled to share the state with another team, especially one that might be better than them. Bowling Green, of the WCHA, is in a similar boat.
I personally think that following the football realignment playbook would be missing the point a little bit. Whoever the conference adds isn't going to force BTN on a new metro's basic cable network. The conference should find programs that fit the geographic and institutional fit of the conference, and are good at hockey. There are a few of those out there.
What does this mean for Notre Dame and the Big Ten, generally?
It would be tempting to say that this helps the chances of Notre Dame eventually joining the Big Ten in all sports, but that almost certainly isn't in the cards for a long time. If anything though, grabbing Notre Dame is a real coup for the Big Ten, which has had to overcome decades of bad blood between ND and the conference. If the alumni base and administration can stomach having B1G affiliation for one sport, perhaps they may be open to other relationships once their deal with the ACC expires over the next decade.
Who knows what college athletics will look like in the next decade. But bringing in a program like ND for a sport that people care about can only help.