Monday, October 03, 2011

NCHC Starts With Eight

After a long, slow flirtation with Notre Dame that felt like it would never end, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference has decided to make Notre Dame's decision much easier.

Instead of choosing between Hockey East and the NCHC for hockey conference affiliation starting in 2013, Notre Dame will be left to choose Hockey East.

The NCHC issued a press release Sunday (I love Sunday press releases while I'm watching the Vikings' latest disaster and preparing to call a hockey game) saying the league will have eight teams when it starts up in 2013.

Since there are already eight schools committed to joining the league at its start -- UMD, Colorado College, Denver, Miami, Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota, St. Cloud State, and Western Michigan -- it doesn't take a mathematician to figure out that unless someone is dropping out, Notre Dame isn't coming.

Here is a snippet of the league's statement:

“We are very confident with our decision and excited to move forward as a strong eight-team conference,” said Brian Faison, Director of Athletics at North Dakota and the spokesperson for the Conference’s Athletic Directors Committee.  “As we have stated many times, it is our goal to establish the National Collegiate Hockey Conference as the premier conference in men’s hockey and there’s no question in our minds that we are well positioned to do so with our membership.  We conducted a deliberate and exhaustive process that included consideration of adding more institutions.  In the end, we determined it is in the best interest of the Conference to proceed with our eight outstanding programs.”

The league basically stuck out the right hand to Notre Dame and waved it along to Hockey East.

Basically, the NCHC tired of waiting for college hockey's version of Brett Favre to make up its damn mind. Notre Dame wanted freedom to make money off its own separate television contract, and the NCHC didn't want to give one member that kind of autonomy. Think Texas/Big 12 if you want a bigger-picture comparison. The only reason Texas is still in that league is then-commissioner Dan Beebe got on one knee and gave UT the right to make money off its own television network while the other schools struggled.

Now, as the NCHC moves forward with eight teams, there are some big decisions to make. Expect the league's leadership -- which is still on track to be in place by year's end -- to address the format of the league schedule very quickly. Teams are booking non-conference dates for 2013-14 -- and I would assume some are doing it beyond that date -- but the NCHC's membership is doing so with no knowledge of what the league schedule will look like at that point.

That's a factor, because the Big Ten schools -- Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, in case you forgot -- are going to start looking for home dates to help fill out a 14-game non-conference schedule (16 if one of them decides to travel to Alaska). The Big Ten schools will do this by paying out guarantees to smaller schools to get home dates.

(For example, Michigan will pay, say, Quinnipiac a few thousand dollars -- not the $1 million that you see for football games, but still a healthy sum -- to play a two-game series in Ann Arbor with no return date.)

As teams work to fill their schedules, there will be increases in these guarantees. How does this impact NCHC scheduling? Well, it might be desirable for NCHC schools to play fewer league games (24 instead of 28), so they can play more non-league games. But if the guarantees make such a thing prohibitive, the league may prefer a 28-game schedule. That means there are fewer non-league dates to fill, and that means less money paid out to teams to make the non-league visits.

On the bad side, it also makes it difficult for teams like UMD, St. Cloud State, and North Dakota to play Minnesota Division I schools who are left in the WCHA. It may take some creative scheduling and teamwork between the three to get that done.

The league has to figure out where the money will come from to fund travel, which includes more flights in league play than ever before for UMD, UND, and SCSU, at the very least. Each of them are looking at flying to five of their seven league series each season, assuming the NCHC plays a 28-game league schedule.

With that in mind, there may be some hesitation to the idea of playing a smaller league schedule and opening up non-conference dates. If a school's travel budget is going to rise, the last thing they need is the additional expense of higher guarantees for non-conference home games.

It's a sticky situation, and one that will present an immediate challenge for the person hired by the NCHC as its first commissioner.

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