In a shocking development, Arizona State plans to elevate its club hockey team to Division I in the next three years, becoming the first PAC-12 school to join the Hockey cool kids' table.
This is obviously a big deal, for a few different reasons. Anyone who's been paying attention to USA hockey in recent years knows that there's been a huge influx of talent from non-traditional hockey markets. In addition, now that many of these new markets are 15-25 years into having NHL teams, these teams are becoming established parts of the local community.
These two developments have naturally led to speculation that college hockey could eventually expand beyond its current limited geographic footprint, but two main factors hold back expansion: money, and the geography of hockey conferences.
Money is the biggest sticking point, obviously. Even if you could guarantee that a hockey program would be well supported—and I can think of a number of schools, like Syracuse or Illinois, where this would probably be the case—you'll probably never recoup the huge costs necessary for starting up a D1 hockey team, including an arena, equipment, scholarships, and matching scholarships for a women's sport for Title IX. That's a huge barrier, which is why I've always said you're not going to see more college hockey expansion unless we find more Terry Pegulas. We don't know all the details about Arizona State yet, so they may well have a Pegula—but if they don't, and are simply choosing as an institution to make the investment, that would be a game-changer.
[UPDATE: Arizona State has apparently raised $32 million from private donors to make this happen, which gives you an idea of the kind of start-up investment you need—and this is without building an arena. They will start by sharing arena space with the basketball team.]
The other factor is just geography and the nature of the conferences in college hockey. We don't know where Arizona State will land in the end. The plan is for them to start as an independent, though they'll need a conference eventually. Odds are it will end up in the WCHA or the NCHC, which will create some travel cost headaches for all involved. The closest teams to Arizona are probably the Colorado schools. The others sort of vaguely nearby are North Dakota and (lol) the Alaskas.
What this does do is pry open the door a little bit for someone else with deep pockets who is a booster of a western school to spend the money to make college hockey happen there. It becomes a less unrealistic proposition. If one more school makes the plunge, you could theoretically look at a conference with Colorado College, Denver, Air Force, Arizona State, mystery PAC 12 school, Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota, and the Alaskas, and it starts to make a little bit of geographic sense. Someone needs to be the first domino in order for that to happen, and given Arizona State's name brand, they're a good domino in a way that, say, Alabama-Huntsville is not.
Make no mistake, college hockey expansion is going to be a trickle, not a flood. Without a proper facility, you're looking at a $100 million up front investment plus Title IX compliance. But this news will make the trickle happen a little more quickly. Especially if Arizona State is successful at drawing fans and interest, which I'm guessing they will be.
So welcome aboard to D1 college hockey program #60. The smart money is on University of Buffalo for #61, but maybe we'll be looking westward again before we know it.