It's clear the honeymoon period between Notre Dame Hockey and the Hockey East Association is now over, but could the two parties be heading for divorce? And so soon?
That is from Cornell hockey blog Where Angels Fear to Tread. To be clear, this is an unsubstantiated report, but only adds to the mounting anecdotal evidence that the relationship between Notre Dame and Hockey East may be on the rocks.
Apparently Hockey East commitsh Joe Bertagna talked about MORE possible HEA expansion on NESN tonight. Dear god, no. @hockey_east— BC Interruption (@bcinterruption) February 7, 2015
joe bertagna is talking about adding schools to the conference to solve the scheduling issues. because that’s the solution.— Eastern Bias (@easternbias) February 7, 2015
How could more Hockey East expansion to 14 teams possibly solve scheduling issues? Unless, of course, Bertagna is alluding to expanding by one as a replacement for Notre Dame, thus bringing the bus league back together.
There were also these comments made by Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson about Notre Dame being treated as an outside in Hockey East, which, yeah.
I won't rehash how ridiculous it is that Notre Dame feels like an outsider in a conference that accepted the school with their own separate national television deal and one that turned the league's scheduling model on its head to minimize flights for the program. Grant did a mighty fine job of this. However, I did want to focus on the larger college hockey ramifications of the Irish bolting for the NCHC.
From a Hockey East perspective, I think this would be a most welcome move that would help to correct what is shaping up to be a two-year mistake on the part of the conference. The former bus league has completely revised the league schedule to minimize Notre Dame travel at the expense of scheduling balance. That wouldn't be such a big deal if the league was still at 27 conference games, but with five fewer games each season and one fewer game per opponent, where those two games are played carries far greater weight on the league's standings.
The other factor is that Notre Dame's separate television deal has completely undermined the conference's ability to strike their own national TV deal. With the Irish taking up valuable inventory on one of the two national TV network partners, there are simply very few spots left to broadcast Hockey East games involving teams other than Notre Dame. To be sure, Hockey East's TV media rights deals leave a lot to be desired as they are, but the league did themselves no favors by taking in the Irish with a separate deal with NBCUniversal in tow.
College hockey's best conference will have no shortage of suitors as potential replacements for that 12th spot. I've got to think that Quinnipiac is the prohibitive favorite to replace Notre Dame should the Irish leave, particularly with the UConn add. Though I suppose Holy Cross, RIT, RPI and/or a Rhode Island program looking to make the jump from club to Division I may also receive some consideration. Regardless of which club is added, a return to the bus league, a more balanced scheduling model and greater leverage at the TV media rights bargaining table would put Hockey East in a great position.
For the NCHC, the possible addition of Notre Dame seems to be more about even numbers than anything else. Once Arizona State gets up and running, the Sun Devils appear to be a lock for the NCHC, which would give the conference nine teams. Notre Dame could round out the membership to an even 10, while giving programs like Miami and Western Michigan another local-ish conference opponent.
The Irish's separate TV deal may be a bit of a sticking point with the NCHC but that issue seems more manageable now than it did two years ago. When Notre Dame was shopping conferences, the NCHC, despite having yet to play a single conference game, deemed the Irish's separate TV media rights deal to be a deal-breaker (which basically sent the school scurrying into Hockey East's warm embrace, for a lack of other options). That stance has seemingly softened over the last two years with more games on FSN regional and FCS as a result. The conference may also have to back off a bit on aspects of the TV deal with a potential Arizona State add, as I'm sure the school's relationship with FOX Sports will come into play.
It doesn't appear as though a Notre Dame move from Hockey East to the NCHC would cause the same sort of seismic shift to the college hockey landscape as Penn State and the formation of the Big Ten Hockey Conference had a few years back. If Hockey East taps Quinnipiac to replace Notre Dame (a no-brainer, really), the ECAC could backfill with Holy Cross or RIT, or even take three Atlantic Hockey schools to balloon to a 14-team conference. Atlantic Hockey could stand pat at 8 or 10 or kickstart discussions with some of the oft-rumored AHA expansion candidates such as Navy, Rhode Island or St. Anselm.
Other assorted questions:
What are the financial implications of Notre Dame bolting from Hockey East, just two years into the agreement? There must be some sort of conference exit fee that would help make the conference whole.
Would Boston College and Notre Dame continue to play annually as non-conference opponents, or would the Irish avoid facing Hockey East opponents in non-conference play at their own PairWise peril? Presumably, since BC and Notre Dame faced off annually as non-conference opponents in the past, logically it would follow that they'd do so again in the future. But you never know how this move will play out with the conference brass and individual schools. Hurt feelings and what not.
With greater scheduling flexibility gained from not having to bend over backwards for an extreme geographic outlier, would Hockey East stick with a 22-game conference schedule, or opt for something a little more exotic like a 24- or 26-game slate with a couple of permanent scheduling partners (think BC-BU, UNH-Maine) having a third regular season conference game. The 22-game schedule affords programs greater non-conference scheduling flexibility, but that's not equally valued by the league's 12 programs. Of course that's good news for the hockey haves like Boston College, which can land non-conference series with the elite programs from other conferences. That's not so great news for the have-nots like Merrimack, which has already been forced to scramble to play a full slate of games this season. Other programs, such as UMass, New Hampshire and Maine, have already played non-conference conference games to alleviate scheduling difficulties, which is the tell-tale sign of a sub-optimal conference scheduling model (cough, ACC football, cough).