Big Ten Conference hockey? It's a strong possibility

ST. PAUL -Though Penn State officially is committed to playing NCAA Division I hockey, Big Ten Conference representatives won't speculate about the possibility of an official Big Ten hockey conference.

ST. PAUL -Though Penn State officially is committed to playing NCAA Division I hockey, Big Ten Conference representatives won't speculate about the possibility of an official Big Ten hockey conference.

The Nittany Lions, they point out, haven't even hired an architect to design their arena. And, they add, such a monumental decision would require a significant amount of discussion at the elite levels of college athletics.

Bruce McLeod doesn't buy it.

"The way I see it, there's not much to speculate about," the Western Collegiate Hockey Association commissioner said. "They were already looking at it, and now they have six teams. They will have it."

Last summer, the Big Ten reached out to McLeod and other college hockey leaders about the possibility of starting a hockey conference. Despite only having five schools that play Division I men's hockey -- Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State -- the Big Ten thought a conference could be created through affiliate memberships with schools such as Notre Dame.


"I and some other people fought very, very hard for several months to avoid that," McLeod said Monday. "We made a pretty good case, and it didn't happen."

Minnesota was among those opposed, though with the addition of a sixth conference team -- the number the NCAA requires for a conference championship -- arguments against a Big Ten men's hockey conference might have dried up.

"We'll do what's best for the sport as

long as we can," Minnesota athletics director Joel Maturi said. "Now, as one of the six (Big Ten) schools, we'll be a part of that decision, but our vote won't count for more than anyone else's. There's obviously a bigger picture; we have to be good soldiers here."

The Big Ten's women's programs at Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio State would not be affected. Those schools will stay in the WCHA, and Penn State likely will join a conference that makes more geographical sense, such as Hockey East or the Eastern College Athletic Conference.

But expect the men's hockey programs at Minnesota and Wisconsin to leave the WCHA after 2013-14, and Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State to leave the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.

The question here is whether that's a good thing for Minnesota in particular, or college hockey in general.

"The WCHA will be fine with us," Gophers coach Don Lucia said. "There are too many good programs, too many good brands still in the conference. But what happens to the CCHA? Those are some major programs to be losing.


"The question becomes whether other schools say, 'Now there's a place for us if we want to add hockey.' "


Most involved with college hockey believe a school of Penn State's stature adding hockey is, in general, good for the sport. Whether it would help further expand the sport is up for debate.

"I don't think anybody knows that answer," said McLeod, whose conference expanded to 12 teams this season with the addition of Bemidji State and Nebraska-Omaha. The WCHA already is exploring the possibility of adding teams when Minnesota and Wisconsin leave.

But where would they come from?

Hockey is an expensive sport, and Penn State was able to add it -- for men and women -- only because of an $88 million gift from alum Terrence M. Pegula and his wife, Kim. It is the largest private gift in the school's history.

That money will kick-start construction of an ice arena to be built on campus near the school's basketball arena, the Bryce Jordan Center, as well as pay for coaches and scholarships until the program begins -- Penn State AD Tim Curley hopes -- making money on its own.

With the addition of hockey, Penn State will have 31 athletics programs. Not many schools can pay for that many -- Minnesota has 25 -- though the Big Ten's 11 schools are among the nation's wealthiest.


The other major factor for Penn State was its club programs. The men's hockey team is one of the best in the nation, winning five American Collegiate Hockey Association titles since the large amalgamation of club programs was formed in 1991 (there are nearly 100 Division 1 ACHA men's programs alone).

Illinois also has won an ACHA title, as have Iowa State, Rhode Island and Ohio University. But how many schools can afford an expensive leap?

Curley said there is "some interest" among Big Ten schools.

"Whether or not they can pull the finances together remains to be seen," he said. "But there will be other schools who will take an extra look and see if they can get a donor or two to put them in the same position (as Penn State)."


Also consider that part of the Big Ten's interest in creating a hockey conference is tied to the Big Ten Network. College hockey is an ideal Friday night programmer for a network that has little to sell advertisers on Friday nights.

"That obviously adds many possibilities for exposure for the sport, and revenues," Maturi said. "So that will be part of the equation, as well."

But those who believe the Big Ten would start a conference just for programming are off base, Curley said.


"In terms of decision making in general, I don't think that's a fair statement," he said. "I don't think it's necessarily funneled through that lens, but certainly in the back of your mind you know you have this asset that you can utilize for maximum visibility of the program."

But if exposure won't be a problem for Big Ten hockey, scheduling could be. With only six schools, the Big Ten would have only 20 dedicated games, leaving 14 nonconference dates to fill.

McLeod said the WCHA has spoken with Minnesota and Wisconsin about an "interlocking" schedule that includes many traditional rivalry games that have developed over the conference's 59-year history.

Lucia, for instance, said Minnesota would like to keep all of its in-state rivals -- Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud State and Minnesota State Mankato -- on the schedule. Plus, he'd like to see games against traditional WCHA heavyweights such as North Dakota and Colorado College.

"These are longstanding rivals," Lucia said. "We've been playing schools like Colorado College and Michigan Tech an awfully long time. I would like to find a way for that to continue; if not every year, then maybe every other year, so we still have a tie-in there."

Ideally, Lucia said, a Big Ten conference would be eight teams. That could mean adding affiliate members such as Notre Dame or another CCHA team. But McLeod said he was told by Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany the league would not accept affiliate members.

"He said, point blank, 'No, that's not on the table,' " McLeod said. "That's not part of his personal philosophy, and it's not part of the Big Ten's philosophy."

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