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College Hockey Realignment: RPI And Notre Dame To Hockey East?

With college hockey expansion and realignment rumors swirling, the ECAC / RPI blog Without A Peer examines whether Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute could be a Hockey East expansion candidate. If Notre Dame decides it wants to take its hockey program east and join Hockey East, then the HEA will certainly be in the market for a 12th program. So how about the Engineers?

Without a Peer cites history, traditional connections, facilities and a recent hockey resurgence at RPI as reasons why Hockey East should consider RPI as an expansion candidate, with the biggest reason arguably being the Engineers' long hockey history:

"No other potential Hockey East program out there, even Notre Dame, can claim a national championship - RPI claims two, as well as a history that dates back over 100 years. The Engineers carry with them that bit of gravitas over other prospective candidates, for whatever that's worth; roots that can be pointed to as part of a long-standing commitment to the sport. There may be questions about the future of hockey at a number of smaller schools, but hockey is an integral part of the identity of the Institute, perhaps more so than any other candidate out there."

No other potential Hockey East program ... except for Bowling Green, that is.

Working against RPI is the school's geography, the fact that they are a small school and a desire to keep things compact. It's the small school factor that I think will be a deal-breaker for Hockey East.

Even among ECAC schools, RPI is one of the smaller schools in the conference with an enrollment of just 6,376. RPI is also one of four ECAC programs that participate in Division III in all other sports. I'm not sure HEA is interested in picking up a D-III program in other sports (only Hockey East members UMass Lowell and Merrimack don't participate in Division I, participating instead in the Division II Northeast Ten).

One of the great things about college hockey is the strange amalgamation of Division I, II and III programs that all participate at the sport's highest level. While there is something endearing about this, this odd arrangement is also partly the cause of the most recent shifting college hockey landscape. Look no further than the formation of both the Big Ten Hockey Conference and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, where a majority of D-I playing schools are breaking away from their existing conference affiliations of largely Division II and Division III programs.

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?).

What do you think? If Hockey East had to pick a 12th team from the non-Ivy ECAC programs, which one would you expect to have an invite?