Monday, November 8, 2010

Penn State/Big Ten: The Times They Are A-Changin'

We never really took any time to address the White Elephant (or rather, the dark blue and white elephant) in the room back in September. There are a few reasons for this:

  1. The story was everywhere, and covered to enough detail at the time that there was literally nothing any of us could add.
  2. I had started writing a three-part post about it, but couldn't finish it in short enough order before reason #1 became a factor.
  3. For reasons that are both boring and lame, I didn't have a workable home computer for most of the last month and a half.
  4. Mostly (and I speak for myself here), I'm shellshocked by the inevitability of the dreaded Big Ten Hockey Conference.

That's right. "Inevitability" of the BTHC. Make no mistake, the BTHC is inevitable. Others may disagree, but I think it will happen.

That's not true. I KNOW it will happen.

We've had a full three months transpire since the Altoona Mirror reported that PSU would be adding hockey. We've had more than enough time to let it settle in. We can make all sorts of guesses as to how we avoid it*, but it's folly. Just as you can bet on the gophers using the "trap" argument to try to take forward recruits from the Badgers, you can bet on the BTHC.

Search your feelings, college hockey fans, you know it to be true.

* By the way, the best idea for avoiding the BTHC was the "Big Ten Cup". A sort of un-official Big Ten championship decided by putting PSU in the CCHA, and conference and non-con games amongst Big Ten schools decide the winner. Sort of like the Ivy League championship decided using ECAC games, but spread over two conferences. The WCHA and CCHA would have to make concessions, but it could happen.

Why am I telling you that this WILL happen?

Honestly, I'm not nearly as sold on the Big Ten Network or a Big Ten conference tourney being the reason, for reasons I can go into in detail if needed, but are somewhat boring and tedious to debate. Facts are: anything the Big Ten, UW specifically, would gain from those avenues is overshadowed by these issues:
  1. More home games: For the foreseeable future, a BTHC schedule would be a quadruple round-robin. Two games at home, two away against each team for a total of 20 games. That leaves 14 non-conference games available. In the world of big-time college athletics (and a BTHC would contain 4 of the top 10 programs in the nation, plus two up-and-comers), non-conference games make the AD's eyeballs turn into dollar bill signs.

    It's the same reasoning that leads to Barry scheduling cupcakes like Cal Poly and Austin Peay for home football games. Why travel away to quality programs like UND or Denver when you can get AIC or UAH to come to your building for $20,000 (or less) and rake in the rest of what UW makes from a home series at home? When Barry Alvarez says that "regionalizing [college] hockey makes sense", like he said to Andy Baggott once upon a time, you know that he's naturally speaking only from the perspective of UW's bottom line (not that we can blame him, it's sort of his job...). Do you think Barry wants us to travel to Anchorage or Colorado Springs if he can avoid it?
  2. Momentum from the CCHA schools and UW: One of the items that makes the Big Ten conference tourney attractive is the notion that it could probably make a lot more money than the CCHA conference tourney. In fact, it doesn't have a very steep hill to climb if it wants to do better than the CCHA. UW and UM are losing out on a LOT of guaranteed money from the WCHA Final Five, but that's mitigated by the fact that UW seems really hot to trot when it comes to the notion. The Big Ten gave a gentle, nuanced response to Penn State's announcement, most notably the following passage (emphasis added):
    "Big Ten rules allow for a championship whenever there are six institutions sponsoring a program in any given sport. This leads to the presumption that there will be a Big Ten Men’s Ice Hockey Championship at some point in the future. A decision of that nature, however, cannot be made without a significant amount of discussion both internally with conference chancellors, presidents, administrators and coaches, and externally with the hockey community as a whole. Whatever we do, we will communicate in a respectful and responsible way as we endeavor to balance all of the unique interests in play."

    On the other hand, in addition to his previous statements on wanting to "regionalize" college hockey (see the Baggott article linked above), Alvarez has been said to have been quite eager to get the ball rolling:
    “I don’t know the logistics — how long it takes to get out of a league, all of that — but I sense that we will move in that direction,”

    Forget about the influence of the Big Ten. When PSU gets on board, you could easily have as many as 5 Big Ten programs on board with the BTHC. Majority rules.
  3. Rumors of Indiana and Illinois getting in the mix: Okay, you can treat this sort of stuff as what they are (rumors). But if either program does find itself off the ground within 10 years, you know that we're in "shit or get off the pot" territory.
  4. It has to happen: This is probably the most important, albeit also the scariest, reason of all. Hockey East is at 10 teams. The WCHA, ECAC and Atlantic hockey all have 12 teams each. The CCHA is at 11, and hasn't shown any indication that they want to add anyone until some of their weaker teams are on more solid ground. Let's face it, once PSU joins, we will have five conferences filled to the brim, and one independent team that would be lucky if they can anchor a new conference.

    At best, we can keep every team around. At worst, the financial situation of college hockey doesn't improve and a few more programs go the way of Wayne State, Findlay and UIC. Paul Kelly and College Hockey Inc. can't encourage new programs to form if they have nowhere to go. The BTHC opens up a lot of spaces for new programs, even if doing so weakens many of the programs in the WCHA and CCHA that depend on the Big Ten schools to thrive (and believe me, there are plenty of fans of non-Big Ten schools in the WCHA and CCHA who are afraid of what happens to their teams in a post-BTHC world).

    Unfortunately, it's a question of cutting some root to make the tree survive- and we may do some serious damage to some programs with wonderful history and tradition to do it.
So, the next question is this: Why do I bring it up now? As I noted, we've seen most of this information before. Two months ago, the college hockey blogosphere was saturated with it. Why bother waxing philosophic about it now?

The answer is simple. It is very likely that this year's freshman class will be the last to play their whole careers in the WCHA. It's just as likely that the BTHC rears its ugly head by the time their senior year comes around. In any case, our days in the WCHA are numbered. I looked at the YouTube videos that Chuck posted earlier today. Videos that remind me of how much I cherish our rivalry with those loathed Sue from Grand Forks. That rivalry, or certainly its intensity and frequency, won't be around forever. It scares and saddens me to see that this, and our rivalries with other "small" WCHA schools, may soon be a thing of the past. Enjoy it while you can.