Most people took for granted that the formation of Big Ten hockey would have far-reaching implications across the world of NCAA pucks.
Few might have imagined that so much change might come about so quickly.
Four months after the Big Ten announced its intention to create a six-team hockey conference, it’s possible another seismic shakeup could be made official this summer.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha, which just completed its first season in the WCHA, is among a group of schools that are pushing forward a plan to create a so-called “super conference.”
Other schools in the new league — which, like the Big Ten, would begin play in 2013-14 — could be North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, Denver and Colorado College of the WCHA and Miami (Ohio), Notre Dame and Western Michigan of the CCHA.
On Wednesday, Athletic Director Trev Alberts said UNO has had ongoing discussions — both internally and with other schools — about future conference-affiliation scenarios. Alberts said the Big Ten’s move has forced all other Division I hockey programs to examine how they best can navigate an evolving landscape.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that a number of institutions have been looking very hard at protecting their brand and protecting something that’s extraordinarily important to them,” Alberts said. “Hockey has always been very important to UNO, but I’d say during the past two years, that importance has probably been heightened to another level.
“At the end of the day, you have to do what’s best for your institution.”
The Big Ten announced its intention to form a hockey conference in March, and speculation began swirling immediately that more moves were on the horizon. But talk of this new conference has kicked into high gear during the first week in July.
According to the Grand Forks Herald, the formation of the conference could be official by later this summer. On Wednesday, college hockey web site USCHO.com reported that agreements could be finalized as soon as the middle of this month.
Alberts said there still are many variables involved in the process and that there is no set time frame moving forward.
Other rumored scenarios have the WCHA simply continuing with 10 teams (once Minnesota and Wisconsin leave) or keeping its membership at 12 by bringing in Notre Dame, Miami or other teams.
But it’s clear that there is increasing momentum behind the proposed new league, and if it happens, it would be another bombshell development for NCAA hockey.
“We need to lock down where we’re going fairly soon,” North Dakota Athletic Director Brian Faison told the Grand Forks Herald. “We’re already looking at scheduling for 2013-14. We’ve got to figure out how this thing is going to play out, whether that’s (staying in) the WCHA or something else. We’re going to do everything we can to ensure that our program stays strong and competitive on a national level.”
The Big Ten will pull Minnesota and Wisconsin out of the WCHA and take Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State from the CCHA. The sixth Big Ten team will be Penn State, which will begin fielding a Division I men’s hockey team in 2012-13.
The possible new conference involving UNO would be a sort of counter-punch to the creation of Big Ten hockey — which is expected to gain significant television exposure via the Big Ten Network.
The proposed league aims to align the top remaining CCHA and WCHA schools, those that put significant resources behind their hockey programs.
By joining together, it’s anticipated these teams could rival the six high-profile Big Ten schools in their ability to earn postseason revenue, attract top recruits and get on TV.
“With the inevitability of Big Ten hockey, it’s really forced everybody, including us at UNO, to take a hard look at our programs,” Alberts said. “We’ve got to figure out the best way to protect, promote and ultimately continue to build the type of program that our fans have come to expect.
“We’ve made a substantial investment into hockey in Omaha, especially with (hiring) coach (Dean) Blais. So you have to do your best to understand what’s going on in college hockey, you have to look at other institutions that have made similar investments in hockey and ultimately you have to do what’s best to protect your program. That’s UNO’s position.”
All eight schools being mentioned — UNO, North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, Denver, Colorado College, Miami, Notre Dame and Western Michigan — made the NCAA tournament in 2011. Duluth won the national championship, while North Dakota and Notre Dame also advanced to the Frozen Four.
“We’re concerned about the college hockey landscape. We’re looking at all the options of what could happen,” Minnesota-Duluth Athletic Director Bob Nielson told the Duluth News Tribune. “Our hockey program is very important to our school, and we want to be proactive.”
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