November 17, 2011

From NEHJ: Addition of Notre Dame raises questions

Boston College beat Notre Dame in the 2008 NCAA championship game. (photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

By Andrew Merritt

When Penn State announced Sept. 17, 2010, that it would add hockey to its slate of Division 1 varsity sports, a very large stone was dropped into the relatively placid waters of the college hockey universe.

A year after Penn State’s announcement, the ripples from that stone finally reached Hockey East.

The 27-year-old league had stayed mostly clear of the fray that resulted from Penn State’s move to Div. 1 hockey — a move that led to the formation of the Big Ten hockey conference, which begat the creation of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC), which begat the reshuffling of the Western College Hockey Association (WCHA) and the demise of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) — all effective for the 2013-14 season.

The Big Ten scooped up the in-utero Penn State program, as well as current CCHA members Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, who will join current WCHA programs Minnesota and Wisconsin when the Big Ten takes the ice in two years.

The remaining CCHA members all accepted invitations to either the NCHC or the WCHA — all except one. Notre Dame became the talk of the college hockey world for most of the spring and summer as pundits, fans and athletic directors alike wondered which league the Fighting Irish would end up calling home.

On Oct. 5, 2011, Notre Dame made its choice, opting to become Hockey East’s first non-New England program in 2013, and its first new member since Vermont joined in 2005.

A press conference was held on the site of Notre Dame’s brand-new arena, and smiles abounded as Hockey East brought arguably the nation’s most famous athletic program into its ranks. The Fighting Irish may be known more as a football tradition, but the hockey program has made huge strides in recent years, even reaching the 2008 NCAA championship game, where they fell to Boston College. Notre Dame also reached the Frozen Four last season — a feat no Hockey East team could claim.

Yet with all the prestige and alumni prowess the Irish bring to the table, their entry into Hockey East also sparks some questions about the league’s future. Notre Dame becomes the league’s 11th member, a number that creates a conundrum when it comes to scheduling and the league tournament.

Commissioner Joe Bertagna (Arlington, Mass.) and the athletic directors, who vote on league matters, now have to determine if the conference should add a 12th member, and if so, which program gets the invite.

“It’s much tougher to do a schedule that does justice to all the variables with 11 teams,” Bertagna said.

With the current 10-team format, there are multiple nights each season in which every Hockey East team is playing a league foe. With an odd number of teams, at least one program will either be idle or playing a nonconference game.

It’s not an impossible situation, but it isn’t ideal as far as Bertagna is concerned.

“For competitive equity going down the stretch, I don’t think you want to have weeks off for some teams and not others,” he said. “I certainly would prefer 12, but I think the more overriding value is going to be, who’s going to approach us, who’s going to express interest, and who can bring value and get the votes of the number of directors we need, which is a majority plus one.”

Before the ink was even dry on the press releases announcing Notre Dame’s entry, speculation had begun on who that 12th team might be. UConn and Rensselaer are ostensibly contenders, though each has certain traits that make it a less-than-perfect fit. The speculation doesn’t end there. Though Bertagna said no substantive discussions have taken place with any programs, there are some arguments to be made for a New England school such as Quinnipiac, and as the addition of Notre Dame shows, the league has no problem expanding beyond the region.

That brings programs such as RIT into the equation, as well as schools that don’t yet have varsity hockey, such as Buffalo and even Syracuse.

“It’s a tough league to compete in,” Bertagna said. “We want schools that are going to bring value to us, and you don’t do anybody a favor if you bring them into the league and they can’t cut it.”

If the league doesn’t add a 12th member, its teams will play each other twice during the season, which adds up to a drop from 27 league games to 20. The result of that is a huge increase in nonconference games on a team’s schedule, which will have different effects on the league’s diverse group of programs.

How those programs set up their estimated 14-game nonconference slate is up to them, and it’s not a cut-and-dry process. The high-profile programs — think Boston College, Boston University, Maine — will be able to put together reciprocal visits with Western giants such as Wisconsin and Minnesota.

For a team such as Boston College, the addition of some nonleague wiggle room is a blessing.

“I think for BC, it’s going to open up all kinds of Big Ten schools coming here, all kinds of (NCHC) teams coming here,” Eagles coach Jerry York (Watertown, Mass.) said. “I think it’s a boon to us. Those are games that as a school, and as a staff, we love to play. … I like the concept of more nonconference, national-type games. The student body wants to see those type of schools, the Denvers and the North Dakotas.”

Not all of Hockey East’s programs have the cachet to earn a return trip from a big-name Western program, however. Teams such as Providence, UMass-Lowell and Merrimack still will probably earn guaranteed money from their opponents for flying out to places such as Grand Forks, N.D., and Madison, Wis., but they may not be able to lure those teams back for a marquee matchup in their own arenas.

“I had a coaches’ meeting in September, and (Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy) pointed out that there are a lot of the large schools out West who will give you the financial guarantee to come out play there, but they won’t come back and reciprocate the trip,” Bertagna said. “Mark said to me, ‘You know, we’d much rather have the reciprocal trip than the money.’”

That’s where the coaches will have to get creative about who, and where, they play.

“There are more have-nots than haves,” said Dennehy (Dorchester, Mass.). “There are plenty of games to be had. There are plenty of teams that will reciprocate. It’s a matter of sometimes you want to play some of these more established programs, but it’s on their terms.”

There are still two years, and two hockey seasons, to go before the Fighting Irish join Hockey East. That should leave plenty of time for the league’s coaches to find nonleague games that fit their programs’ needs, and plenty of time for the league itself to determine whether, with some ripples still to come, it will need a bigger boat.

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal. Andrew Merritt can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.