College hockey is going to get started soon. With just 58 teams, fans should typically consider themselves lucky that there are 16 teams allowed into the national tournament at the end of the season. That's quite a low ratio of participating schools to tournament teams.
The sport has backed itself into a corner in a way. There are no smaller conferences for teams to join when they first become Division I programs. There is no room for newcomers in most of the leagues. And why would a powerful league like the WCHA want a Division I newcomer, likely to be at least a short-term whipping boy?
Over the weekend, our friends at INCH reported that Penn State was set to join the ranks of Division I hockey institutions, with an announcement possible this week.
It's an announcement that will be heard around the hockey world, as the sport has not seen much expansion since the early days of College Hockey America. It shows that there is indeed the opportunity for growth within the game, and it proves that big-time institutions like Penn State are indeed interested in a sport like hockey, which is relatively expensive and can be a big money-bleeder if not handled properly.
One has to wonder what has already been determined behind the scenes. It's not likely that mighty Penn State is starting a varsity hockey program so it can be an independent, or play in a league like Atlantic Hockey.
No, there's a big-boy ambition here, and the resources exist to carry that ambition out.
Where will they go? Well, the obvious answer seems to be the Big Ten. Penn State's teams are in the Big Ten conference, but the Big Ten does not yet sanction a hockey league. There are only five Big Ten members with active hockey programs, and six teams are required for a league to gain an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament for its champion.
Penn State would be the sixth. So would Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Minnesota, and Wisconsin jump at the chance?
I don't see why not. None of them are reliant on their current league for survival, especially Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. They are big-time hockey programs that could thrive in any league. Michigan State has a lot of tradition, and Ohio State -- while not the powerhouse it should be -- is not going to stay in the CCHA out of blind loyalty.
The Big Ten is a cash cow, thanks to a wonderful television network that makes a ton of money for the league and its member schools. That network is set up to be the home of Big Ten hockey, should the league get started. That could happen as soon as 2014, as it's not expected leagues will release members before then because of scheduling commitments.
However, the Big Ten can't do this alone. With only six members, teams will only be able to bank on 20 conference games per season. That leaves between 12 and 14 non-conference games that must be arranged. In order for the Big Ten to have a chance, I would expect them to reach scheduling agreements with at least two of the other Division I leagues. That may require them to work hand with leagues they've raided to get teams -- the WCHA and the CCHA. Because of the power the Big Ten teams are likely to have nationally (even with Minnesota down right now, Michigan and Wisconsin are NCAA regulars, and Michigan State is back on the rise), no league will turn down a chance to get some non-conference dates with Big Ten teams.
That said, the Big Ten would be smart not to burn bridges along the way to making their hockey conference a reality at last.
If/When the Big Ten finally forms a hockey league, we'll get some answers to these questions. Until then, it's largely pure speculation.
After all, wouldn't it be funny if Penn State just joined Hockey East and left everyone alone?