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College Hockey’s Instability

28 Jul

The folks at College Hockey, Inc. are dealing with plenty of issues. CHI’s job is to market NCAA ice hockey and for the most part, it has succeeded. Since the quasi-lobbying group’s founding, college hockey has seen growth in virtually all facets. Even with that, college hockey is now at a crossroads. The folks at the Big Ten have decided to start their own hockey conference, and while on paper, that’s a good thing, especially for TV purposes, it’s also leading to an upheaval of several conferences and that instability may be sending players to the Canadian Hockey League just as college hockey is on the brink of signing a major broadcast deal with Versus.

College hockey has long struggled to gain prominence nationally across North America. In Canada, the CIS has long been in the shadows of the CHL, while in the U.S., NCAA hockey hasn’t been able to bust into the mainstream. It’s certainly made some great strides but the lack of Division I schools with hockey programs has been a major hindrance. Another issue is that some of the most successful on-ice teams often come from unknown schools that are obscure or are not considered to have major athletic programs. That down home appeal which allows smaller schools a chance to play with athletic powerhouses gives college hockey character, something that’s lacking in many of the NCAA’s athletics. Unfortunately, many of these smaller schools are now finding themselves in limbo.

When the Big Ten announced their new hockey conference, most people saw it as a good thing for marketing purposes. While the Big Ten Network already aired some hockey games, bringing together all of the major schools should bring a higher profile to the game. It’s also likely that BTN may now air more games, which is a good thing. The next shoe to drop was the creation of the new NCHC. That league is now causing the WCHA to undergo some changes. The CCHA conference is now in some disarray after losing some of the league’s powerhouse teams. The dominos continue to fall and there are several teams that may be looking for new homes as a way to just survive.

Much of this re-alignment all stems from BTN but college hockey has long had some good regional television deals. The CCHA has deals with FS Detroit and Comcast Local, while several of the WCHA’s teams have their own regional deals. NESN carries several games a year although coverage in the northeast seems to be harder to find compared to the midwest. A major change for college hockey came with the advent of CSTV – today, it’s known as the CBS Sports Network. CBS currently airs at least one game per week and was the first national carrier to show games on a weekly basis. Then, when ESPNU launched, they added at least one game per week and gave the NCAA tournament more coverage than ever before. The Frozen Four has posted decent ratings as coverage continues to grow. NHL Network and Leafs TV each show several games a year but the biggest deal seems to be on the horizon. There have been multiple reports that Versus is planning to show games, which would give college hockey it’s biggest weekly platform ever.

All this sounds largely positive, at least for the larger schools. While programs like Michigan and Minnesota seem to be in great shape, other schools like Bowling Green and Lake Superior State find themselves in limbo. The rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. Perhaps this instability is causing some players to second guess their decisions to go the college route. Just over the past month, four top NHL prospects have decided to renege on previous announced college commitments and are now planning to play in the Ontario Hockey League.

It’s a disturbing trend for the folks at CHI. You have to wonder if all these changes are too many all at once. With so many pieces still out there to fall, perhaps players are looking for a more stable place to play. It’s a good thing if college hockey gets more exposure, but perhaps it shouldn’t come at the expense of changing the game itself and it’s unique character. Throwing out the smaller schools could lead to dominance by the larger schools and there’s very few college hockey fans that see that as a good thing. And while most players want to play for the powerhouse programs, much of college hockey’s appeal comes from the diversity of it’s teams. You have prestigious schools going up against state universities, athletic powerhouses playing small town colleges. The atmosphere and rivalries in college hockey are hard to beat.

Even worse is the possibility that several programs may go under. Yes, we don’t know what future schedules are, but how many times do you think Michigan will ever make the trek up to the Soo to face the Lakers anymore? Those games are big moneymakers financially for the smaller schools and their dates are irreplaceable. There’s no way that games against a Mercyhurst or Robert Morris can make up for that loss. Several college hockey programs have been hurting financially for years and these changes only exasperate that. There’s no guarantee that Illinois or Indiana will want to jump into hockey, so what happens if these smaller programs close up shop?

In the end, college hockey may lose out just because of greed and ambition. The potential to have fewer schools icing teams is not a good thing. College hockey has a storied tradition and it would be a shame to throw it all away just to get some more television money. The unique character of college hockey may be done in thanks to a few breakaway schools. Maybe the Big Ten will take off and they can lure some more big name schools to ice teams but I’d rather have the character and history of places like Kalamazoo or Bemidji in the game. Bigger and more profitable doesn’t always mean better. Like it or not, tradition and character helps draw people into college hockey and let’s hope the game doesn’t completely sell it’s soul all for a few dollars.

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