With the elevation of Arizona State's hockey team from ACHA club status to the NCAA Division I ranks this year, college hockey's highest level now has 60 teams competing. At last year's Frozen Four, the "State of the Game" press conference included questions about the future of college hockey, including who could be team #61 as the expansion of college hockey continues.
Turns out we may have an answer to that question.
UNLV is exploring the possibility of going to Division I for hockey and are appearing as if they could be the next school to elevate their program.
The city of Las Vegas has long been an intriguing possibility for the sports world. A huge tourist destination, it carries over 42 million annual travelers into McCarran International Airport. The Las Vegas Strip is America's playground, and Sin City has everything there is to offer for anyone who wants to go looking for it.
Additionally, sports have a long history in Vegas. Prize fighting for boxing and the UFC always brought in big revenues to the Las Vegas Strip, but the city of Las Vegas proper have been a haven for minor league franchises. Since 1983, the Las Vegas 51s have been a staple of life in the desert, and the Runnin' Rebels basketball team have the fourth-highest winning percentage in college basketball history.
As a result, professional sports leagues have constantly evaluated Las Vegas as an option. But what makes Vegas intriguing - the amount of money flowing through the city and the glitz and glamour of a true tourist destination - is also its biggest drawback. A city relying so heavily on decadence and gambling has been the major turnoff until more recent times. Despite all of the other issues facing professional leagues, sports betting and the perception that games are on the level are the cardinal rules never to be unbroken. Sports make their living, after all, in the perception that, even with potential biases, that the outcomes aren't rigged.
That's a wall being broken down in recent years by hockey. The NHL's expansion dreams are centering on two markets. Wanting to expand by two markets, Quebec City provides a new arena and a hockey-ready region with built-in rivalries and history. Where it failed in the past, the modern era may allow it to succeed. The second market is Las Vegas.
With the NHL looking into Las Vegas, there's the natural rub to figure out how to expand the game beyond the top levels. Enter UNLV.
The article linked above has the details of how UNLV is looking into expanding into Division I, so I'll avoid talking about that in particular. I recommend clicking on it since it's a fascinating look at the city as a potential destination. Without getting into the particulars of the NHL expansion, I recommend reading up on the topic since it seems college hockey's expansion may be tied to the big league's ability to place a team in the desert.
College hockey expansion and realignment is always a touchy subject among those who follow it. The growth of the game is very important, but there's a fear that college hockey will move from a small niche of hardcore, dedicated fan bases into a big money sport that prices out the little guys. Hockey is different from all other sports in that some of its growing schools aren't Division I programs - Clarkson, St. Lawrence, RPI, Merrimack, RIT, Minnesota-Duluth, Northern Michigan, Michigan Tech. Growing the game will inevitably lead to growing costs which will forever alter the course of how these programs operate.
At the same time, though, growth will happen with the growing popularity of hockey, which means the landscape will be forced to shift fluidly and naturally. Moves out west are unlikely to impact schools like Boston College in terms of Hockey East, but there's going to be some downstream impacts which will most likely make their way east. Arizona State is competing this year as an independent, taking on club teams, Division III teams, and Division I teams. There's much discussion as to where they'll end up in terms of conference placement because life as a hockey independent is unsustainable in the long term.
UNLV provides a second team in the far west, which allows Arizona State to potentially package with the Rebels to a league. The schools are only separated by a five-hour road trip, a length of time manageable throughout all of the different leagues (for example, five hours separate Brown-Yale from the Cornell-Colgate road trip). It would also provide a foothold the starts for seeds to be planted out west.
Pure speculation at this point for fun, but if you add UNLV, you have two teams close enough where a league could then get involved with developing in Los Angeles. USC's been known to kick the tires on college hockey; adding UNLV and Arizona State could give them reason to start looking at a team since the two schools are less than seven hours away. If you add USC, you can add UCLA. Next thing you know, some league's developed an entire western division which can easily spin off into another league.
I don't think there's any impact back east to UNLV adding hockey other than to give schools a potential non-conference opponent. The eastern leagues would be more interested in developing the game out here, getting more teams to invest in infrastructure so that if a league somewhere is to splinter or spin off, it'll help keep the foundation of the game's smaller schools going. What happens out west shouldn't impact what anyone in any of the eastern leagues do, in my opinion.
Ultimately, this is just something that's fun to discuss, and it's interesting what might happen next. It's clear there's a concerted effort by college hockey to move forward and grow, and it's obvious that someone, somewhere, is going to be the next school. At that "State of the Game" press conference, everyone seemed to say that they were working hard on identifying markets to grow the game, whether it was in existing markets or in new, emerging hockey locales. If nothing else, all that talk is moving closer to becoming reality.