College Hockey Realignment: Notre Dame Heading East?

Mike Johnson #32 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish is unable to stop a shot by Jack Connolly of the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs during semifinals of the 2011 NCAA Men's Frozen Four on April 7, 2011 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

There has been loads of NCAA college hockey realignment news the past couple of days, so let's catch you up. 

The biggest news is that all eyes are -- still -- on Notre Dame as they get set to announce a new conference. The Irish's decision will ultimately come down to whichever conference will give them the best TV deal, obviously. Notre Dame is down to either Hockey East or the NCHC, with Hockey East thought to be the slight favorite, especially given Colorado College AD Ken Ralph's recent comments on the latest round of college hockey realignment.

Consequently, now with eight teams in the league - with St. Cloud State and Western Michigan accepting recent invitations - Ralph said things are stable, but allows some wiggle room for a possible ninth.

"We really wanted to be at eight. We won't go beyond nine," Ralph said.

"One of the things fans like about eight is, it gets everyone in your building every year," Ralph said. "Fans are vocal about wanting to see that. This year, we don't have Minnesota or North Dakota in our building. That's a significant revenue loss for us. And our fans want to see the best teams, future NHL players, the best coaches."

Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna, on the other hand, seems ready to accept Notre Dame as the conference's 11th program. That is, if the Irish want to head East to join Catholic schools Boston College, Merrimack and Providence in HEA.

However, if Hockey East adds Notre Dame, it doesn't sound like Bertagna and the HEA leadership is gonna stop at 11 with Bertagna acknowledging on Tuesday that an even number of teams is a favorable scenario. The early frontrunner for program 12? That would be Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

"On the one hand, its academic profile and size - not to mention geography - more closely resembles its fellow ECAC schools. On the other hand, RPI was courted by Hockey East twice before, when it was formed in the early '80s, and again in the mid-'90s, ultimately deciding against it both times. And, most importantly, the idea is supported by its current administration, including head coach Seth Appert and athletic director Jim Knowlton (despite his lip service to the contrary, as was reported Tuesday by Ken Schott of the Schnectady Gazette)." 

While I've written multiple times that the Irish playing hockey in Hockey East would be a slam dunk for the conference, forgive me for being slightly less enthused about the addition of RPI. Here's what I wrote about the possible addition of RPI back in July.

"While RPI, Clarkson and St. Lawrence may have gotten an invite to join Hockey East back in the early 1980s, the college hockey landscape has changed dramatically during that time. Back in the 1980s and even the early 1990s, it wasn't uncommon to see a school that plays D-II in other sports win the men's hockey title, with programs like Michigan Tech (1975), RPI (1985), Lake Superior (1988, 1992 and 1994) and Northern Michigan (1991) all winning titles. Since 1995 though, college hockey has been dominated by the all-sports Division I schools. Minnesota Duluth broke a 16 year streak of Division I schools bringing home the title. The only other non D-I school that even reached the finals during that span was Colorado College in 1996.

I would hope Bertagna sees the writing on the wall out west with the formation of the NCHC and the BTHC and doesn't pick up a small Division II or Division III school to pair with Notre Dame. For these reasons, I hope that if HEA looks to the ECAC for a twelfth program, that we take a hard look at Quinnipiac or Colgate over the other four, non-Ivy, Division III ECAC programs -- Clarkson, RPI, St. Lawrence or Union. Better yet, let's just take our time and maybe another more suitable all sports DI option will emerge (Syracuse? Villanova?)."

I really don't see any upside to adding a tiny school with a tiny arena that hasn't been nationally relevant in over 25 years. If Notre Dame's goal is to maximize television exposure, I don't see the upside in adding a school that participates at the Division III level for 21/23 sports with no major investment in big time college sports like BC, Providence, Notre Dame and UMass. Like I said, I'd much rather take on a UConn program in need of a major investment or a non-existent Buffalo, Syracuse or Villanova program. At least with those schools, you know that once committed, they'll help grow the sport and the conference's reputation.

With RPI, I see another Merrimack at best or UMass-Lowell at worst, with plenty of middling finishes in Hockey East, and with the Engineers never seriously challenging the Big 4 -- Boston College, Boston University, New Hampshire and Maine -- and now Notre Dame for regular season and tournament titles.

If Notre Dame truly is a package deal with Rensselaer Polytechnic, I'd just as soon watch the Irish head west to the less than super NCHC, RPI stay put in the ECAC and Hockey East stick with the current 10-team configuration.

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