Much to the delight of a vast majority of Hockey East fans, Notre Dame will be departing Hockey East for the Big Ten in 2017-2018, making next year their fourth and final season with the league.
It was pretty evident from the very beginning that this just wasn't a good marriage for either side. In year one, there were already rumblings that Notre Dame was dissatisfied with having to travel so much compared to their league peers - and this is in spite of the fact that the conference blew up the entire scheduling format to allow ND to have two-game homestands and two-game road trips instead of the traditional home-and-home matchups.
This seems to be a good solution for all parties involved. Notre Dame gets to join a conference that's a better geographic fit, but still has the #NameBrand they're looking for that the NCHC lacked. They're also probably likelier to contend for conference titles on the ice, given that the B1G teams have struggled. The B1G adds a team to their conference and begins to repair the mistake of launching a 6-team league. And Hockey East has a chance to push the reset button on some of the mistakes they made to accommodate the Irish.
It's highly unlikely that the league will remain at an odd number of 11 teams, so the speculation has already begun on what the league might do to backfill moving forward.
The most natural and obvious choice is Quinnipiac.
Unless QU decides they don't want to leave the ECAC due to their strength in that conference, this seems like a slam-dunk for both sides. Hockey East adds a team within their New England footprint that has also dipped its toes in to the NY market with some home games televised on SNY. They also add a team has been every bit as good if not better than Notre Dame in terms of adding quality to the conference. UConn gets a natural in-state rival. Hockey East fans get a chance to visit QU's glorious TD Bank Arena, which would immediately be one of the top rinks in the league.
Additionally, QU gets to raise their hockey profile in the eyes of fans, recruits, and the media, rubbing shoulders with schools like BC, BU, UConn and Northeastern that are more in line with their school's applicant/student pool than the Clarksons and Unions of the world (great schools, of course, just very different from QU - a bit of an odd duck in the upstate-NY, liberal-arts school dominated world of the ECAC).
As an added bonus, Quinnipiac has a very strong women's program that would round out the HEA women's league at 10 teams, and add a high-quality program to a league that is rightly viewed as weak compared to the ECAC and WCHA.
Should Quinnipiac not make the move, the second most likely choice seems to be Holy Cross. They would be able to use the DCU Center, recently vacated by the AHL's Worcester Sharks, who left town to move to California, and sell themselves as entertainment for people in the Worcester area, similar to what UConn is doing in Hartford. They also have built in rivalries with BC and BU that would carry over from other sports and generate immediate interest.
That said, QU would be preferable to the Cross; HC has a lot of work to do to bring their program up to a level necessary to compete year in and year out in Hockey East, and I'd selfishly prefer trips to a true college venue like the TD Bank Arena to an aging, oversized AHL stadium. One of those in Hartford is more than enough. HC also does not have a Division 1 women's program, and if they did upgrade the program to D1 it would take a while for it to be anywhere near the level QU would bring.
It's hard to imagine anyone else other than Quinnipiac or Holy Cross being the 12th team. Let's run through the possibilities really quickly:
- RPI was rumored the last time HEA was expanding, but it just doesn't seem to make any sense right now.
- Syracuse has been thrown out there as a possibility, but a) there's pretty much zero chance Syracuse could have a D1 men's team ready to roll by 2017-18 and b) again, with all the successful programs in New England, there's really no reason why Hockey East needs to shed its profile as a New England league. URI is the other speculated potential school who could start a team - but again, it's not going to happen by 2017 and they'd probably need a training wheels league before they could jump in to HEA.
- Bentley and RIT seem to be the only other teams that a) are anything resembling a geographic fit and b) would be interested in leaving their current conference (sorry, Harvard is not leaving their Ivy brethren). With all due respect to both programs, they'd both be several steps behind QU and HC in desirability to the league, though I could see Bentley being a fit if they build a top notch arena.
It's theoretically possible that this shakes out with a team leaving Hockey East and the league going back to 10 teams, which I would personally be pleased with, as they could go back to having 3 conference games against each team. Is there anyone who doesn't miss the extra game each year with BU, Providence, Northeastern and UNH? That said, I just can't see that happening.
I don't think Hockey East is going to boot anyone out; they'd likely rather expand. The only way HEA drops to 10 is if someone wants out as part of a bigger realignment (more on this later). I could see a scenario where, say, Merrimack ends up as part of a re-vamped league out of the ashes of Atlantic Hockey if it splinters. But there have been rumors of Merrimack's demise for, oh, 30 years now and it hasn't happened, so I wouldn't count on it. UMass isn't going anywhere; Vermont could theoretically fit back in the ECAC if there's an opening, but HEA seems pretty happy with having all of the New England flagship schools in their conference. It's hard to see anyone else potentially leaving (sorry UConn, the Big Ten is not walking through that door).
Next up, explore the possibility of splitting in to six team divisions so that BC, BU, Providence, Northeastern and (pick two of your choice) can face one another 3 times a year. Gate attendance for the additional nonconference games can't compare to what local rivals draw. This probably won't happen, but it's worth at least thinking about.