Photo By: Zachary BonDurant
By Paul Hornstein
If you didn’t get a chance to listen to last weeks’ edition of College Hockey Southwest Weekly with Jess Myers, of the Rink Live, when you’re done reading this, go back and listen to what was a funny & informative look at the rise of the University of St. Thomas to division one status (hockey & otherwise). Included in that look was Scott’s attempt to educate me on Minnesota High School hockey. Thanks to Jess, I got a true feel. In the conversation, we also talked about how the arrival/survival of St. Thomas, LIU & UAH would affect the conference alignment in college hockey, and what does it mean for ASU?
What does it mean for ASU? Let’s take a look. Or at least put down paper, what I think it means.
There are five conferences in college hockey. Technically, in 21-22 there will be six…but the seven WCHA schools that will be leaving the league to “re-form” the CCHA, still keeps it at five…unless something unexpected happens, the two Alaska schools and Alabama-Huntsville, will still technically be a part of the WCHA but a three-team league? No. So, really still five leagues.
So, where does ASU fit in? Obviously, they are not joining Atlantic Hockey. There is not one metric that says this is where ASU would make sense. One down, four to go.
Does ASU fit in the ECAC? From a competitive standpoint, actually, they do. At least at the moment. Look at the teams that are at the top of the ECAC. Clarkson, Quinnipiac, Cornell, Harvard & Northeastern have been NCAA tournament contenders, and indeed threats to win the whole thing on a regular basis in the last ten years. Especially the three Ivy League based schools. ASU has played competitively and beaten all of those teams, except Northeastern, which they have not played since they became competitive, period. Union & Yale are not exactly pushovers, either. Where they don’t fit, is the travel. It would be insane. This isn’t Hockey East, where most of the flights would be Phoenix to Boston. Getting to all of those schools in the ECAC that are located in upstate NY would not only require long plane rides but accompanying long bus rides. So, it is not happening.
The new CCHA? I think that they would be happy to have ASU, at least as they were configured as the WCHA. However, one of the reasons they stab, oops, left the other three team behind was a battle with travel costs. Even if they stayed ten days in Alaska to play both of the Alaska schools, it is not cheap. It is also not exactly a snap to get to. Alabama-Huntsville, is a little easier to get to, but for a city that was built on the space industry, you would think it would be a little easier to get to, but…the smart money is on this being the landing place for St. Thomas. ASU on the ice, would likely be a top two team in this league every year, with Minnesota State. At one point, this group was the most likely landing spot for ASU.
As I said on the podcast, the league, to me that will always make the most sense to me, is the Big Ten. I know, I know, there is no talk of it at all. The travel would be easy…the schools are all what are known as Power Five schools, the Big 10 & Pac12 have been aligned for a century. So, no matter how much sense it makes, it is not going to happen.
Hockey East has not been the power in college hockey that it has been in the past. A lot of that has been the up and down nature of the big Boston schools, Boston University & Boston College. Yes, Providence won the national championship a few years ago, but the big boys are the marquee teams in this league, and until they get back to their old-time winning ways, it will seem like the league is down to the outsider. UMASS & UMASS-Lowell are trying to take up the space left by those teams, but they have also been up and down.More down than up. There is a segment of this league, that would love to have ASU. And if you stretch it a bit, it could work. Most of the schools would have easy travel to Tempe & vice versa. It is the schools like Maine, Vermont & New Hampshire that would struggle. For ASU the constant presence in the hockey hotbed that is New England would continue to be great for recruiting. The schools from HE get a big chunk of change from their contract with NESN, the regional sports channel that is shown throughout the region. And in January, when BC played at ASU, you know that that open to the broadcast, would be done outside, and no matter what anyone connected to ASU wants to say, what is the first thing that EVERY recruit says when you ask them why ASU. ASU would also be in a place that they would be, like in the ECAC, be in the mix for title chase in the league, but it would be with four or five teams. The plus, like it would be in the ECAC is the strength of schedule. Win 20 in HE or the ECAC and you’re in the NCAA tournament, almost assuredly. Personally, I would love this. Boston is not that far from Long Island. Closer, if I decide that taking a boat half the trip is the way to go.
But let’s get real.
If you know anything about Head Coach Greg Powers and the culture that they have built, they will play anyone at any time. That to be the best you have to beat the best. And right now, and it has been since the conference inception, that is the NCHC.
The NCHC started play in the 2013-14 season. The league, two years older than the ASU NCAA program can “play it” anyway you want to play it. You want tradition? They have that. St. Cloud State was the first head coaching stop for Hall of Fame & Gold Medal winning coach Herb Brooks. The NCHC is also home to two of the blue blood programs of college hockey, in Denver University & the University of North Dakota. Denver has won eight (the last in 2017), while North Dakota has won also won eight (the last in 2016). Colorado College was a power in the early days of college hockey winning two national championships in the 1950s, and in 1994 lost to Michigan in an OT thriller. Minnesota-Duluth (three overall), all they have done is won the last two titles.The league usually gets three to four teams in the tournament…including an unreal SIX in the 2015 tournament. The league has won the last four NCAA championships.
Miami of Ohio was coached for almost twenty by one of the winningest head coach of all Enrico Blasi. Nebraska-Omaha was the last coaching stop of hall of famer Dean Blais, and Western Michigan is currently coached by former NHL coach Andy Murray.
ASU’s travel would be a piece of cake, compared to the other leagues. Two trips to Colorado and a trip to Nebraska a year. Add that to playing Air Force as a non-conference team regularly, and you easily cut down on the travel.
In addition to being the power conference of college hockey at the moment, the other thing the NCHC has is a regular Friday night spot on national television on the CBS Sports Network. Is it ESPN? No, but it is every week once the conference season hits. And once that new building is ready, if you don’t think that the first thing the powers that be at the network will do is figure out how many times they can legitimize going to Tempe in January and February, then you need to think again. Crap, they may throw in a game or two more than they are obligated to do, just to get an extra trip. Hey, ASU has home ice in the first round of the conference tournament…let’s do an extra playoff game. You can laugh, but…get those guys aside in a private moment and ask.
Some folks that I have talked to are not sure of ASU can compete year in and year out in this league. I have no idea. They certainly are off the ice. This year’s ASU recruiting class has been ranked number two in the country behind North Dakota’s. As Jess Myers said to Scott and I on the podcast, “get the damned shovels in the ground”. They’re coming.
While nothing is official, until it is…right now, the NCHC seems like the leader of the pack. At this point, I would be surprised if they end up anywhere else. If for no other reason, it just would seem to go against Greg Powers (and AD Ray Anderson’s) style.