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College Hockey Realignment: Motivations Behind Possible NCHC Expansion

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On possible NCHC expansion and why the conference should be interested in courting Notre Dame.

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Last week, the rumor mill started in on the possibility of Notre Dame leaving Hockey East for the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. When reached out to Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson, Jackson offered up what Joe described as the dreaded vote of confidence right before a firing. Even the "endorsement" of Hockey East seemed a bit half-hearted.

"Yeah, Hockey East is fine. I mean it's alright. We're not having that bad of a time, I guess. We just traveled to Maine for the first time in 30 years. Yay Maine!"

This seems like more of a smoke-fire sort of thing. Until we see some sort of statement of denail from either Notre Dame or Hockey East, I'm inclined to think there's some validity to these rumors.

If we take a step back, the motivations behind a possible NCHC expansion seem pretty clear.

When Arizona State fully transitions to Division I as the sport's 60th program for the 2017-18*, the Sun Devils will join the NCHC. There will be some degree of manufactured suspense with the Sun Devils noodling on the NCHC or WCHA question, but Arizona State will become the NCHC's ninth program. What the program clearly lacks in prestige it makes up for with size and enough cache that joining the west's top league along with elite programs like Denver and North Dakota makes sense. Plus, given the relatively large gamble on behalf of the school, Arizona State also isn't going to saddle itself with conference games in far-flung Anchorage, Fairbanks and Huntsville, Alabama either.

The NCHC is probably already making plans to find a 10th program to round up to an even number. Due to the scheduling and travel complexities associated with having just 9 programs, it logically follows that the new league will strive to get to 10 programs. Having an odd number of programs, particularly out west, is a logistical and scheduling nightmare. Conferences have managed odd numbers briefly in the past, but it's even more important now to get to that even number given that virtually every other college hockey conference will have an even number of programs going forward. An odd number of programs throws the league's schedule off and makes it virtually impossible to have programs in action every weekend over the second-half of the season.

Here's how college hockey's conference landscape has shifted over the years.

Number of College Hockey Programs Per Conference, 2000-01 to 2014-15

2014-15 11 8 6 12 12 10
2013-14 12 8 6 12 11 10
2012-13 12 11 12 10 12 2
2011-12 12 11 12 10 12 1
2010-11 12 11 12 10 12 1
2009-10 4 10 12 12 10 10
2008-09 4 10 12 12 10 10
2007-08 5 10 12 12 10 10
2006-07 5 10 12 12 10 10
2005-06 6 8 12 12 10 10 1
2004-05 6 9 12 12 9 10
2003-04 6 9 12 12 9 10
2002-03 6 11 12 12 9 10
2001-02 6 11 12 12 9 10
2000-01 6 11 12 12 9 10

This season, every conference except for Atlantic Hockey maintains an even number of programs, and the AHC has to do so out of necessity (as the lowest Division I rung and an odd number of programs). When Arizona State joins the NCHC, it'll prove extremely difficult to keep all nine programs busy every weekend; especially during the second half of the year when conference play really heats up.

The question is which program becomes that 10th school for the NCHC.

I do think Arizona State is going to go it alone for a while. I don't see the Sun Devils elevating to Division I serving as the tipping point that leads to the creation of the Pac-12 Hockey Conference, for example. Some of the more logical candidate schools have one or more flaws. Colorado and Utah are not as healthy financially as their more established former Pac-10 counterparts. Stanford is already at 36 varsity sports and would probably need even more than Pegula-type cash to get an arena built on the Farm. Cal recently announced cuts for a number of varsity sports, though got most of them back through fundraising and other efforts. Finally, there's a number of macro-level issues swirling around the NCAA right now—Title IX, full cost of attendance, Power 5 autonomy, O'Bannon, the unionization movement, among others—that will really start to tax athletics departments. I doubt men's varsity hockey is relatively high on that priority list at a majority of Pac-12 schools.

The NCHC could once again look to the WCHA to round out membership, perhaps adding Bowling Green (to get the MAC schools back together) or Minnesota State, though that would leave the WCHA with an odd number of teams. I suppose it wouldn't be so crazy if the WCHA, once again poached by the NCHC, backfilled with one of the westernmost, non-Air Force programs like Robert Morris or Mercyhurst. At that point, I'd imagine Atlantic Hockey would stand pat at an even 10 programs without a logical expansion candidate. But once again dipping into the WCHA then puts the onus on that league to get back to an even number of programs—particularly having to balance weekend trips to Fairbanks, Anchorage and Huntsville. Given the travel requirements, a WCHA with an odd-number of teams doesn't seem all that sustainable.

Having exhausted expansion options with the Pac-12 and WCHA, the NCHC will almost certainly turn its attention back to Notre Dame—an extreme geographic outlier, and one that has recently complained about being an outlier in its new league. And, unlike the WCHA, there's no shortage of viable expansion candidates for Hockey East should Notre Dame leave and head west. The Irish would be reunited with former CCHA members Miami and Western Michigan as well as a number of former WCHA conference members—Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, and North Dakota. The Irish would no longer be the extreme geographic outlier that they are in Hockey East, with two relatively local programs in Miami and Western Michigan.

Hockey East would almost certainly replace Notre Dame with Quinnipiac, with the ECAC backfilling with either Holy Cross or RIT from Atlantic Hockey. At that point, college hockey's six conferences would reach equilibrium—12 in the ECAC and Hockey East, 10 in the NCHC, WCHA and Atlantic Hockey, and six in the Big Ten. College hockey might finally enjoy a period of relative stability, though that setup leaves little room for growth with no place to put a single school looking to elevate its program to Division I. Though I suppose we'll cross that bridge when we get there.

The Notre Dame-to-NCHC rumors have previously focused on the Irish's apparent dissatisfaction with Hockey East. But if you dig a bit deeper, the conference that could come a-poachin' is just as incentivized, if not more so, to court the Irish as the conference's 10th member program.

* Per the school's release, Arizona State will play a hybrid Division I / ACHA schedule in 2015-16 and as a Division I independent playing a full Division I schedule in 2016-17.