With the growing competition between today’s “super conferences,” commissioners, university presidents, and board members are constantly searching for the next frontier that can give their conference an edge.
The last five years has seen the Big Ten evolve immensely. Universities (Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers) have been added via realignment, new logos were put in place, and a conference championship game was finally formed in football.
Most groundbreaking however, was the introduction of a hockey conference.
Previously having five teams in different collegiate hockey conferences, (all seeing success at one point or another) the Big Ten was forced to watch their usual affiliate schools participate in the now defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association and still running Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
Despite seeing Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio State make Frozen Four appearances and win National Championships, the Big Ten still needed one more team to form their own conference, per NCAA regulations.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2010 that Penn State announced they would be playing DI varsity hockey after continued success at the club level. With Penn State on board, the Big Ten had themselves a hockey conference.
Expansion of the Big Ten Hockey Conference is imminent, and a couple universities stand out as likely candidates.
Since its founding in 1956, the University of Illinois club hockey program has seen its share of peaks and valleys. But starting in the mid-2000s, they’ve been arguably the most consistently successful team in Division I ACHA hockey – boasting two National Championships and an undefeated 38-0 record in 2007-2008.
While past success at the club level and a preexisting hockey culture at U of I is undoubtedly an essential element to make the jump from club to varsity, there are other factors that must be met.
I was reminded of one of the greatest challenges for any school striving to take a team to the next level by Big Ten Network Hockey Editor Michelle McMahon.
“Title 9 plays a significant role with any school hoping to form a Division I team. If their men’s club team were to jump to the varsity level, they would also need to form a women’s varsity team to maintain equal balance amongst men’s and women’s athletics at the university.”
In addition to Title 9 parameters, funding is an immense obstacle for a sport like hockey.
Penn State wouldn’t have been able to accomplish this feat without contributions made by billionaire alumnus Terrence Pegula, including a new arena and state of the art facilities capable of attracting elite college hockey prospects.
Most recently, Arizona State was announced as the next university to be participating in DI varsity hockey, bringing the total to 60. 2015 will be the Sun Devils’ inaugural season and a test run, playing a foreseeable “hybrid schedule” with both DI and ACHA opponents.
Arizona State’s ascent couldn’t have been possible without donations of approximately $32 million from alumni.
Considering their status as a high-enrollment school with a surely sizable endowment and numerous successful sports teams – the Big Ten would be wise to court first-year Arizona State AD Ray Anderson in their pursuit of future conference expansion. The Big Ten lacrosse conference did something similar when it was formed in 2013 and successfully pursued the well-known Johns Hopkins program.
According to McMahon, there’s benefits and drawbacks to the Big Ten adding ASU.
“This scenario would widen the recruiting range for Big Ten hockey teams immensely (having a team representing the Southwest states). However, with projections that ASU will struggle initially, it may lower the competitiveness of the conference.”
Although $32 million sounds like enough to build five hockey arenas, ASU decided their first few seasons would be played either in Tempe at the Wells Fargo Arena or in Phoenix at the U.S. Airways Center.
McMahon mentioned that while the Illini have seen the most success of traditional Big Ten teams playing at the club level, the University of Nebraska “has all the logistics in place to form a DI varsity hockey team. They have an arena, an established fan base, and the funds. However, they have yet to show any interest in making the jump.”
In Lincoln, the 2015 Cornhusker hockey team will be the first to play in the John Breslow Ice Hockey Center. With donations made by various parties, the arena construction costs were approximately $11 million.
Currently, the Illinois hockey team resides in the historic University of Illinois Ice Arena, built in 1931 by the same firm behind Soldier Field and other architectural staples throughout the state. But, with a 2,000-spectator capacity, an unconventional seating arrangement with bleachers elevated almost directly above both benches, and a non-regulation sized sheet of ice – “The Big Pond” isn’t exactly a formidable home for a DI varsity team.
If the necessary steps were taken and conditions allowed, I have no doubt that Illinois hockey would become successful at the DI varsity level.
But before that can happen, someone may have to open their checkbook.
(Featured Image courtesy of U of I Hockey’s Facebook)