College hockey realignment is heating up again. Fortunately, this time UAH hockey isn’t looking for a conference slot to save its life, but could it find itself in a better deal than it is now?
The first move in this round of conference shuffling started a month ago when the Big Ten accepted Notre Dame as a hockey affiliate member starting in the 2017-18 season, bringing the conference’s hockey membership up to seven.
Now the question is where will the Big Ten get an eighth hockey member (because leagues love even numbers). It was speculated that they could get Division I-newcomer Arizona State.
That’s not going to happen, according to reports on Monday, cutting the Sun Devils’ options between the WCHA and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Reports from College Hockey News and USCHO.com on Friday have the NCHC trending toward a deal with Arizona State, although NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton said nothing was imminent, while WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson has reiterated openly that they are pursuing the Sun Devils.
Arizona State is an interesting prospect. It just finished its first season as a varsity program, playing a mix of Division I, III, and club teams. The Sun Devils went 5-22-2 against NCAA opponents — three of those against WCHA opponents (one against Alaska-Fairbanks in Anchorage, and two in a sweep at Lake Superior State). They will play a full Division I independent schedule this coming season, and have been intending to play in a conference starting in 2017-18.
In the WCHA, ASU would hands down be the largest university in terms of attendance, with over 69,000 students, over four times more than the league’s current leader, Bowling Green. Arizona State would also join Bowling Green as the only full Division I athletic programs in the WCHA.
But there are questions. A big one is where ASU plays, or will play. The Sun Devils’ primary home has been Oceanside Ice Arena, which was renovated to a capacity of only 840, which would be the smallest in the WCHA. ASU played four games this season at Gila Bend Arena, home of the Arizona Coyotes, drawing over 5,000 twice. The Coyotes could partner with ASU on a new arena.
Then there’s travel. Arizona State would be added to a conference that’s primarily in the Midwest but already has two teams in Alaska and one in Alabama. ASU should be good with chipping in on the subsidies UAH and the Alaska schools provide to the rest of the league to cover the additional costs of visiting those areas, but how much extra mileage can the WCHA handle?
The current membership must be OK with the answers to these questions if Robertson is this public about pursuing them.
But if the WCHA adds Arizona State, where will it go to find a 12th member? (Again, leagues love even numbers.) Does it try to get Robert Morris or Niagara from Atlantic Hockey?
We’ll continue to monitor this during the summer. Meanwhile, there are a couple of realignment ideas that would be interesting from a UAH point of view.
Modest proposal: Fixing the WCHA
Drew Evans at BGSUHockey.com wrote a column last week about fixing the WCHA in three steps. The second step was the conference expanding to 12 and going into divisions. Arizona State wasn’t one of the two teams he’d add, which is understandable given the questions above and, at the time, how unlikely ASU joining would be.
Evans suggests adding Robert Morris and either Mercyhurst or Niagara from Atlantic Hockey, and splitting the league into Western and Central divisions. Each division would have one Alaska school to spread the travel there, and UAH would be in the Central with Alaska, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Robert Morris, and Mercyhurst/Niagara.
The primary reason for this suggestion is travel management. Save for the Alaska team, most of a club’s travel within the division would be bus rides of no more than 12 hours (between Ferris State and Huntsville).
It’s an interesting idea, especially if the WCHA fails to get Arizona State.
More modest proposal: Return of the CCHA?
Chris Dilks at SBN College Hockey goes further, going beyond the WCHA. His plan to fix the Western conferences includes the formation of an 8-team conference with many members from the old CCHA, plus UAH:
- Bowling Green
- Ferris State
- Lake Superior State
- Michigan Tech
- Northern Michigan
- Western Michigan
There are few scenarios that would benefit UAH more than this setup, particularly in terms of travel. Sure, we’d lose rival Bemidji State as a conference foe, but to help the Chargers’ bottom line, it would be crazy for UAH not to accept this if it were presented.
With eight teams, this conference could play a 28-game schedule with every team playing each other home and away. It also leaves the door open for future expansion, perhaps including Robert Morris, Niagara, and/or Mercyhurst as Evans suggested. (Any of those three would still not be the furthest away from UAH in such a league.)
Dilks’s plan hinges on North Dakota joining the Big Ten as a hockey-only member, and the rest of the WCHA/NCHC and Arizona State coming together in a 10-team, two-division league. I don’t know if UND would go for joining the Big Ten, although North Dakota as a hockey-only Big Ten member makes more since than Rutgers and Maryland as full-time Big Ten members.
Realignment has been rumored to return from the moment the current league setup was agreed upon. Now we see if that time has come, and whether UAH can be all the better for it.