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Will Power 5 Autonomy Impact College Hockey?

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Only 8 NCAA D1 hockey teams fall into the "power 5" category. Are they set to reap great benefits?

Hannah Foslien

Last week, soon after the Power 5 autonomy vote was completed, our friends over at Bucky's 5th Quarter asked: will this widen the financial gap between the "Power Five" college hockey programs and everyone else? The eight "power five" schools currently playing D1 hockey are the B1G six of Penn State, Ohio State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State, along with Hockey East's BC and Notre Dame.

Read the whole thing, but here are some of the important bits:

If a cost-of-attendance stipend is eventually approved, which seems like a certainty, the disparity between major and minor athletic departments will widen significantly. While all schools would have the ability to open their budgets to compete with the Power Five conference teams, there's no way many of the smaller programs in college hockey could survive by handing out an additional $1 million every year to student-athletes.

Schools like North Dakota have already been exploring ways to remain one of the premier teams in the country, despite not being on the same footing financially as the Power Five conferences. I expect other schools in the sport who have been traditional powers, but reside outside of the Power Five conferences, to find a way stay competitive at the highest level.

The real concern is for the schools with Division II and Division III athletic departments that play Division I hockey. The power schools in the sport already hold significant advantages in recruiting; what happens when they can offer a prospective recruit an extra $3,000 towards cost of attendance that the smaller schools can't?

Personally, I don't think you'll see much of a difference in competitive balance in college hockey - not in the short term, anyway. It seems that for years now, people have fretted about some of the smaller schools' ability to compete as college hockey comes into more TV revenue. And yet the combination of recruiting older players who stay four years, along with the one-off nature of tournament hockey, has meant that over the past 5-6 years, we've seen more parity in the NCAA tournament than we probably ever have. Think of some of the teams that have played on college hockey's biggest stage at the Frozen Four: Bemidji State, Ferris State, UMass-Lowell, Vermont, RIT - just to name a few.

Firstly, while the details on Big Five autonomy are fuzzy, my understanding is that they are likely to vote for a cost of attendance stipend targeted toward the highest revenue sports of football and basketball, rather than tacking $3,000 on to every athletic scholarship. While it's possible that some of the bigger hockey programs also dole that out to hockey players, it's no guarantee.

In addition, the last two national champions are schools that don't even offer scholarships. As we all know, Yale and Union have been able to build strong teams through use of "financial aid packages," which, though sometimes lucrative, don't cover the full cost of attendance the way a full scholarship does. Why would an extra $3,000 make a difference? Many players who commit to top non-scholarship programs like Yale and Union could easily hold out for an offer from one that does offer scholarships.

A few factors allow non-scholarship programs to be competitive in hockey where they otherwise might not be in another sport: 1) a smaller pool of major powers to compete against; 2) the ability to recruit and keep overlooked, older players; 3) the fact that demographically, many hockey players come from wealthier backgrounds that would allow them to skate for a financial aid package that doesn't cover the full cost of attendance.

One way that a stipend could change the game in college hockey in the long term, however, is NCAA's relationship with major junior. Right now, anyone who plays a game of major junior loses their NCAA eligibility, since junior players get a "cost of living stipend" along with educational benefits. It's rarely lucrative, but because it's some pocket cash that goes above and beyond the basic essentials, the NCAA considers it a violation of amateur status. But if the top NCAA programs are handing out stipends for living expenses, why should this be legally considered different from what major junior does? Could hockey coaches successfully challenge the NCAA on this definition and get to a point where players wouldn't burn their eligibility if they played major junior hockey? That would be a game changer, though by vastly widening the talent pool, it might  not necessarily benefit certain schools in particular.

One thing that could be interesting is seeing what kinds of rules change in terms of allowed practice time. I assume that any such rule adopted by the power five could be easily adopted by the smaller conferences, given that that change wouldn't necessarily cost much.

My theory on change in college hockey remains the same as it has been throughout the realignment process, and is unimpacted by the Big 5 autonomy ruling: I think the small, non D-1 schools that step up and compete in D-1 hockey will continue to be able to do so. I think the "power schools" will continue to have strong advantages, but won't run away from the pack. However, the big adjustment is going to come for schools that are used to being hockey-only powerhouses that attract the very top recruits - schools like UNH, Denver, Colorado College, Maine, etc. I'm not sure they'll be able to go head to head with a Big Ten school or a BC or a Notre Dame for most elite recruits going forward, so they may have to change their strategies or get creative in order to remain powers in the sport.

While we'll have to wait and see what rule changes actually occur as a result of this ruling, for now, don't expect too much to change in the world of college hockey.