I love the game hockey and I certainly have a special place in my heart for the college game, after competing at it back in the day. What isn’t there to like about games played before packed house like Ritter, Yost, Alfond, Mariucci, Matthews, and Cheel arenas. The bands crank out school fight songs and taunt opposing goalies all night. Some rinks even have frat brothers ring a large bell (i.e. Clarkson) after each home goal scored and newspapers are held up when the visiting school’s starting line-ups are introduced (i.e. Cornell). School pride is strong, really strong at college hockey games. As a fan it’s captivating and as a player it’s electrifying.
When I was about 10 years old, I witnessed two student spectators almost go toe-to-toe during a rival match between Clarkson and SLU at a standing room only Appleton Arena. Being a good citizen, my dad stepped in and saved these two 20-year olds a lot of possible headache then and in the future.
Growing up in the mid 80s in a college hockey town, I had no idea about the ramifications when Hockey East formed away from the ECAC Conference. A few teams have come and gone or joined this conference or that over recent years like the recent WCHA happenings. Although it has been some years now since an entirely new conference has formed like the NCHC (National Collegient Hockey Conference) this past week. Or the soon to be Big Ten Hockey Conference set for the 2013-14 season.
The announcement of Penn St. establishing a program most definitely shook up the NCAA D1 hockey world. The funny thing about it is normally college hockey is like one big family working together to promote the game like how it develops the student-athlete as a player, scholar, and citizen. Well, I would say the news and occurrences over the last few weeks and months has been anything but that. It’s survival of the fittest mode. The big fish in the pond only seem to care about themselves, the dollar signs at the end of the road, and could care less if the water dries out the little minnows.
Personally, I have always looked at college hockey different. Different in respect to the other NCAA sports like football and basketball. But who am I kidding, the world is changing and so is college hockey landscape. Sure the game still has a lot if integrity, yet let’s not be naive as these changes are all for the bigger picture…$$$. Did you hear the cha-ching at the register? Colleges in hockey are positioning themselves for TV deals. Are you going to watch Michigan play a small CCHA school like Ferris St. in HD or would you rather be entertained by Big 10 rival Ohio St. on Saturday night just hours after both schools played a thriller in the “Big House”.
I’m all for making college hockey a popular sport like the other traditional sporting events on campus. Although college hockey needs to be a little innovative in order to accomplish this goal. Sure its going to take a lot of blood, sweat, and moolah. After all, there are 35 bowl games for football, a March Madness tournament that lasts for 3 whole weekends, and a college world series to compete against. So college hockey minds really need to put their heads together and collaborate. Honestly, hockey will never be as sexy as football, basketball, or baseball in the U.S. but it has made enormous growth and might as will keep paying it forward.
First, college hockey should consider having one commissioner for all conferences. No matter what happens in the future regarding alignments or re-alignments. Instead of preaching the dog-eat-dog mentality as of today, perhaps a coalition approach. They don’t practice Darwin’s theory in the class room or locker room, so then college hockey could stop calling the kettle black. Keep the sub-commissioners for each conference, yet hail to the king. This will ensure all teams and conferences receive impartial treatment. For college hockey as a whole, it’s the best thing as it can not afford to play the feast or famine game. Unification will be unique and differentiation from the other college sports.
Secondly, level out the playing field. Adopt a parallel or similar system to the NHL’s salary cap. Why do you think NHL revenues and popularity is growing. The compete level from all 30 teams is remarkably close making for great playoff races and Stanley Cup playoffs. Therefore, institute the same number of scholarships for all D1 schools, no matter if in Big 10 or Atlantic Hockey. By giving RIT or Robert Morris 18 scholarships not only will allow them to vie for top players against the BCs, BUs, and Minnesotas of the college hockey world, but no single conference will dominate. That puts people in their seats whether you’re at the Kohl or Achillies Center for league and non-league games.
Third, college hockey in the United States competes with other big sports which is a battle on its own. Unlike football, basketball, and baseball which is the only avenue to the pros, college hockey also has the Canadian major juniors luring quality players away. The CHL (Canadian Hockey League) is considered the premier pipeline for players to the NHL. Well numbers don’t lie even though college hockey is making a great push. Though an impressive list of alums have made the jump to the big leagues from campus, the college game’s rules and sctructure is somewhat different to the pros. Some tweaking like the power play will build for a better game.
Yes they use a puck and have 5 skaters and a goalie on each side. Yet the bigger aspects are what could be holding college hockey back. I’m talking about allowing players to wear half shields, 4-on-4 overtime session, implementing the shootout, and enhancing the schedule with series playoff formula across all conferences. Perhaps expand the national tournament to 32 teams, adopt an east vs. west format over 3 weekends at various sites with final weekend having two surviving teams playing best-of-three series. If the effort is to create television revenue and marketing the game, reform the game a bit so fans, players, coaches are attracted more to college hockey.
With that said, college hockey needs to expand with the big market NHL cities like Washington, Chicago, Philadelphia, Raleigh, LA, and Dallas. All these metro areas not only have NHL franchises, but also “big time” colleges and universities essential for the evolution of the college game like: Georgetown, UVA, Maryland, Northwestern, Illinois, DePaul, Villanova, Drexel, Temple, NC St., UNC, Duke, USC, UCLA, Baylor, and Texas respectively to name a few. If you look at the NHL Entry Draft over the last few years, players are growing up playing their grassroots hockey in some of these non-traditional hockey markets of the south and west. Plus there are several American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) or club teams centralized in known hockey areas like University of Buffalo (NY), Syracuse (NY), Pitt (PA), Navy (MD), Rutgers (NJ), Seton Hall (NJ), Marquette (MI), and Rhode Island (RI). It’s not an overnight turnaround nonetheless somewhat vital. It makes sense geographically as well with conferences and enhancing the overall image of the college hockey game.
It is understandable that not every college has the financial ability to incorporate a D1 program. I don’t think every student union or city street corner in America has a Terry Pegula hanging out with a cool $88 million. Yes it’s a long-term strategy for college hockey but you would be surprised of the endowment funds available at the larger universities. There are a fair amount of healthy alums always looking to make the college experience better. Heck, look at Minnesota State-Moorehead that recently made waves about already reaching 40% of its $37 million goal to add its D1 program. It’s a smaller D-II school with about a 7,500 enrollment and an endowment just over $7M. Not to mention the National Hockey League has big pockets, an agreement makes sense especially when players will be filtering into the their ranks on a greater basis.
Another marketing idea to consider would be a mid-season NCAA All-Star and skills competition game comprised of NHL prospects and draftees. Also, the formation of tournaments and non-conference games in cities unexposed to NCAA college hockey across North America.
A totally more off the cuff idea would be for NCAA Hockey to team up with the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS), the governing college body for sports in Canada. After all, hockey is Canada and Canada is hockey. Not to mention there are a handful CHL teams (Everett, Portland, Seattle, Spokane, Tri-City of the WHL and Erie, Plymouth, Saginaw of the OHL) that reside their business in the States. Toche, touche as they say in French! Anything you can do I can do better!
College hockey needs to live in the now and take care of each other. Many of the smaller schools have great hockey tradition. Mix in a few big name schools, with a dash of new rules and a pinch of schedule reform and you will have a splendid recipe of college hockey success. Although hang on as this roller coaster stride has only just begun.
Follow Russ Bitely for more hockey news, comments, and articles on Twitter: @russbites