College Hockey Realignment 2011: Stopping The Bleeding

ST. PAUL, MN - APRIL 07: : Kenny Reiter #35 of the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs stops a shot by the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during semifinals of the 2011 NCAA Men's Frozen Four on April 7, 2011 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs defeated the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 4-3. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Today the "Super 6" are set to announce the formation of a new college hockey conference, further dividing an already fractured college hockey landscape. The infamous WCHA "Gang of Five" -- Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota -- along with Miami (Ohio) from the CCHA are set to break from their old conference allegiances to form a new western college hockey power conference.

Whether or not this is in the greater good of college hockey is debatable, but what is done is done. It's time to move forward, assess the flaming wreckage and come up with a plan that will ensure the survivals of Bowling Green, Alabama-Huntsville, Ferris State and the rest of the WCHA/CCHA remains. Hopefully, we avoid having another program like Wayne State close up shop and maintain all 59 Division I programs.

Let's take a look at the moves I hope are made to maintain seven healthy college hockey conferences going forward.

New WCHA (8 programs)

It sounds like Northern Michigan is in discussions to rejoin the WCHA, and Alaska might be right behind them, rejoining Alaska-Anchorage in the WCHA. That brings the WCHA to seven members -- Alaska, Alaska-Anchorage, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State, Northern Michigan and St. Cloud State. The two Alaska members aside, this is a conference with a very manageable geographic footprint that includes Minnesota and the Michigan Upper Peninsula. I would hope that the reconstituted WCHA would agree to also take on another UP team -- Lake Superior State -- which would make an even eight programs for the conference.

"Super League" (8 programs)

At this point, I'm happy to let both Notre Dame and Western Michigan head west to join the "Super League." Western gives Miami (Ohio) a MAC buddy and the addition of Notre Dame makes the "Super League" the best in college hockey. These moves would move the "Super League" to eight programs -- Colorado College, Denver, Miami (Ohio), Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota, Notre Dame and Western Michigan.

CCHA (6 programs)

The above moves leave the CCHA with just two programs -- Bowling Green and Ferris State. It's hard to see the remaining two CCHA programs having much bargaining power, but the league is in discussions with Atlantic Hockey's Niagara, Canisius, Robert Morris and Mercyhurst to join the conference. Those four programs have long wanted to up the number of scholarships from 12 to 18 and a move to the CCHA would help the four western most Atlantic Hockey programs (that aren't Air Force) do just that. If the CCHA wanted to expand further, they could always attempt to also invite RIT and UAH to make eight, but Huntsville does make the conference a bit more unworkable geographically and the CCHA has already turned down UAH once before. For now, let's say the new CCHA is Bowling Green, Canisius, Ferris State, Mercyhurst, Niagara and Robert Morris.

Atlantic Hockey (9 programs)

The AHA would take a hit if it lost its four western Pennsylvania / New York programs to the CCHA, but I think they could survive. Despite being a geographic outlier, it sounds like Air Force has no intentions of leaving the eastern league and the Falcons' service academy skating partner Army. With Air Force, American International, Army, Bentley, Connecticut, Holy Cross, RIT and Sacred Heart, the AHA becomes nothing more than the old College Hockey America+. Add Alabama-Huntsville as the conference's ninth program and stop there.

ECAC (12 programs)

Unchanged -- Brown, Clarkson, Colgate, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, Quinnipiac, St. Lawrence, Union, Yale

Hockey East (10 programs)

Unchanged -- Boston College, Boston University, Maine, Massachusetts, Merrimack, New Hampshire, Northeastern, Providence, UMass-Lowell, Vermont

Big Ten Hockey Conference (6 programs)

Unchanged -- Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin

 

This conference alignment gives us seven viable conferences, five of which are easily open to expansion if all these programs come out of the woodwork and start up D-I hockey programs (the B1G and ECAC being the two exceptions). That's a HUGE improvement on the current college hockey landscape, where just two conferences could conceivably be expanded -- the CCHA with 11 and Hockey East with 10.

Blowing up the current conferences to arriving at five smaller conferences that could conceivably expand is the one big positive from this recent shakeup, but the above assumes that none of the smaller programs decide to say "screw it," pack up and go home.

The other benefit of a bunch of smaller conferences is that this will give programs more of an opportunity to schedule more non-conference games, giving some of the smaller programs in the new WCHA, new CCHA and new Atlantic Hockey a boost at the gate. With the above alignment, here would be the proposed number of league games per conference:

20 conference games -- New CCHA, Big Ten Hockey Conference
21 -- "Super League", New WCHA
22 -- ECAC
24 -- Atlantic Hockey
27 -- Hockey East

The HEA would still be at a disadvantage playing 27 league games, but this brings the total number of conference games down significantly across college hockey. This both levels the playing field come NCAA Tournament selection time for the major conference at-large candidates and allows for more of the major conference programs to visit the mid-majors.

Though if Bertagna somehow convinced Notre Dame to join Hockey East and the "Super League" proceeds to pick off Western Michigan, that would leave HEA with 11 and the "Super League" with seven programs. This could even further standardize the number of league games across the sport. With this scenario, HEA would probably move to a 20 game schedule (home-and-home) and the "Super League" would have a 24-game schedule.

The biggest hurdles to this proposal will be convincing the AHA to take on UAH and convincing Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan in the new WCHA to bring along Lake Superior State. It's also predicated on the assumption that Notre Dame and Western Michigan head west, and that the desire to field a full scholarship hockey program outweighs the fact that Canisius, Mercyhurst, Niagara and Robert Morris would be joining a conference with just two so-so programs in Bowling Green and Ferris State. 

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