It's never a good thing to hear about the loss of a college sports program. Athletes need to make a decision: Find a new place to play my sport of choice, or quit playing that sport to stay where I am. Coaches lose jobs. Fans lose a team they have followed with dedication and passion.
In men's Division I hockey, it's really tough to lose a program. There are, after all, only 59 of them to start the 2007-2008 season. After this season, you can make it 58.
Wayne State (Mich.) has decided to do away with men's hockey after this season. The Warriors made the NCAA Tournament once, back in 2003, but never were able to build on that appearance. There was talk of building an on-campus rink, but it never happened. Instead, the Warriors played most of their games at the Michigan State Fairgrounds Coliseum, far from their campus. They never drew well, struggled to develop a loyal fanbase, and lost money as a result.
They tried to apply to the CCHA, in hopes of stabilizing the program, but they were denied. The feeling was that Wayne's future depended on getting into the CCHA.
Wayne State belongs to College Hockey America, a five-team league that has struggled since their inception. Originally six teams, CHA lost Findlay (Ohio) when they dropped the sport, and they lost Air Force to Atlantic Hockey. They were only able to add Robert Morris (Pennsylvania) to the fold in this time.
The league gets an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament every year, but no team has ever won a game since the autobid was installed (Niagara had won as an at-large). Bemidji State, Wayne State, and Alabama-Huntsville have all put scares into higher-seeded opponents, but none were successful in winning a game.
When Air Force left, the NCAA gave an exemption to the CHA, allowing them to maintain their automatic bid, even though they didn't have the normal minimum of six teams needed for an autobid.
Now that Wayne State is leaving, the future of College Hockey America is in serious doubt. Can the NCAA continue to exempt a four-team league with programs that are largely struggling on the national scene? My guess is that the NCAA will remove that exemption at some point in the near future, leaving the CHA with four teams and no autobid, and virtually ending any chance the league has to survive.
As for its members, that's where things become hairy.
Robert Morris hasn't been around very long, so it's tough to tell what their future will be. Niagara has enough of a history that they should be able to squeeze into another league at some point, though Atlantic Hockey - the most sensible destination - claims they are staying put at ten teams. Alabama-Huntsville faces an uphill battle to keep their program alive, given their location far away from everyone.
Finally, Bemidji State is in a conundrum. The Beavers have tried to gain entry into the WCHA, but the league won't budge on its expansion moratorium. BSU has gone so far as to say their future as a program rests on entry into the WCHA. So far, that isn't happening.
All these facts aside, it's time to mindlessly speculate.
- It's silly to count on expansion of Division I to help fill out leagues. We've heard about schools like Navy, Penn State, and Syracuse, among others, potentially having interest in Division I hockey. But those rumors need to go the way of Sid Hartman's Big Ten Conference theory (that is, away). I'll believe it when I see it, and for now, it's silly to count on this happening to help fill the ranks. We have to plan on making due with what we have.
- Robert Morris and Niagara are a package deal. One has to hope that the RMU program doesn't fold almost as quickly as it started up. That would be horrible for college hockey. That said, from a location standpoint, these two aren't an ideal marriage. But it makes no sense to break them up, especially when the price is the likelihood of a league having to awkwardly schedule around an odd number of teams. These two will find a home together, I hope.
- It makes geographic sense for Bemidji State to join the WCHA, but it won't happen by itself. Something else has to happen. Maybe UAH can jump into the CCHA while Nebraska-Omaha or someone else moves into the WCHA. The WCHA needs an even number of teams. No one wants to deal with an eleven-team league, which would create logistical nightmares for the schedule-makers and wreak havoc on the league's wonderfully-run postseason tournament (a huge money-maker for the league). Knowing only what we know now, I'll guess that Bemidji won't be joining the WCHA alone, if it ever happens at all.
- All four programs are in some sort of trouble. I'm especially worried about Huntsville and Bemidji. I think something can happen for Robert Morris and Niagara out east, but Huntsville is on an island, and Bemidji is stuck in a spot where the only league that makes sense for them doesn't want them. Some might remember a day where UAH and BSU battled it out for the now-defunct Division II title. Since no one outside of Minnesota-Crookston plays Division II hockey in the Midwest, it doesn't appear viable for Bemidji to drop back. They can't drop back to Division III for hockey because it would require them to stop giving scholarships in their Division II sports (some of which are quite successful).
In the end, I think the odds are approaching 50/50 that Bemidji State will have to either move back to Division II, accept that they won't get into any major postseason tournaments, and try to get back in the Division III NCHA, accept being a Division I independent and dealing with the difficulties of scheduling and the lack of any automatic NCAA Tournament consideration, or drop the sport altogether. With the history Bemidji State has with hockey, the latter should be considered a last resort, and it would be one sad day for college hockey if it ever happened.
UAH faces a similar fate. They probably have to accept being an independent or drop hockey. It would not be a death-blow for the sport, but it certainly would seriously harm the chances of college hockey ever expanding to southern schools.
Right now, Atlantic Hockey says they're not expanding. However, I don't think that's the final word. Before it's over, I see the AHA at 12 teams. Either that, or they'll split up into two leagues of six, allowing the sport to maintain their six automatic NCAA bids and a 16-team national tournament. That's the ideal situation.
In the end, it's possible that Wayne State's decision is the start of a bad chain of events for college hockey. For now, it has to be said that this fate is preventable, but it's going to take a team effort.