Schools forced to make hard choices
Traditional tournaments, rivalries threatened in new reality
This month, the U.S. Military Academy and its Canadian counterpart, Royal Military College, revived one of the great traditions of college hockey when they played for the first time since 2006 at West Point's Tate Rink.
At the same time, however, another of the game's great traditions may be on its last legs.
It was announced this week that in conjunction with the 2012 NHL Winter Classic, which will take place at Michigan Stadium, next season's Great Lakes Invitational will take place at Detroit's Comerica Park. Michigan, Michigan State and Michigan Tech typically play a two-day tournament each December at Joe Louis Arena -- the fourth school changes from year to year -- but this December, the tournament will move to the home of the Detroit Tigers, where it will be played on an outdoor rink being built to host other events related to the Winter Classic.
"I think that'll be terrific," Michigan head coach Red Berenson said. "It'll be a shot in the arm for the GLI, and it'll be a new twist for an outdoor game. It's fine to have one game outdoors, but to have four of them outdoors over a two-day period in a tournament setting, it'll be really interesting how that plays out."
While it's a great showcase for the tournament -- second only to the Beanpot among college hockey's in-season showcase events -- it's uncertain how much longer the tournament will continue. The impending conference realignment that will take place after the 2012-13 season will mean new realities in terms of scheduling, and Berenson wasn't sure this week how much longer the tournament will last.
The GLI isn't the only tradition in danger. With the Big Ten due to begin sponsoring a hockey championship in the 2013-14 season, and the newly formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference set to begin play at that time as well, some of the fiercest conference rivalries in college hockey will no longer be conference rivalries.
Minnesota, for example, has developed storied rivalries with WCHA opponents like North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth, not to mention in-state opponents like Minnesota State and St. Cloud State. Come the fall of 2013, however, the Golden Gophers will be in the Big Ten, while North Dakota, UMD and St. Cloud will head to the NCHC and the Mavericks will stay in a new-look WCHA that will see Alaska, Northern Michigan, Lake Superior, Bowling Green and Ferris State come from the CCHA to join Minnesota State, Michigan Tech, Alaska Anchorage and Bemidji State.
Michigan is in a similar situation. While the Wolverines' traditional all-sports rivals from Michigan State and Ohio State will also head from the CCHA to the Big Ten, visits from the Wolverines have become major events at schools like Lake Superior and Ferris State. Meanwhile, Notre Dame, a program that continues to grow under head coach Jeff Jackson and a school linked to Michigan through their longstanding football rivalry, is off to join Hockey East in 2013, which carries its own set of complications.
"I don't know whether or not we'll be able to continue the rivalry or a competitive schedule with them or not," Berenson said. "That remains to be seen, depending on what direction they're going."
Of course, it's not like the rivalries will disappear entirely. NCAA regulations allow as many as 34 games in the regular season, and the new conference schedules will certainly allow for ample non-conference play. Each of the six Big Ten teams will play 20 games under the new schedule, while the NCHC recently announced a 24-game schedule. Still, its unclear to what lengths the newly-separated schools will go to in the name of keeping traditional rivalries alive.
"We just had a recent scheduling meeting with our own administration," Berenson said, "and tried to develop a philosophy, whatever that philosophy might be for future scheduling."
To some extent, powerhouse programs like Michigan, Minnesota and North Dakota will have to balance between doing what's best for the program and what's best for college hockey.
"We have to evaluate who we want to play in those non-conference games," Berenson said. "My feeling is that we should try to continue to play some of the current CCHA teams, particularly the ones that are close. Why would you not play a team like Bowling Green that's only an hour away, and Western Michigan's only an hour and a half away. I can't see us going to Alaska very often, but definitely, I think we'll try to play some of the teams in the CCHA."
The decisions that Berenson, his staff and the Michigan athletic department will face are going to take place at many other schools, from new NCHC members like Minnesota Duluth and North Dakota to Big Ten schools like Michigan and Minnesota. While little is certain at this point, the answers will have to come before too long.
"I'll give you a better answer on all of this in a year," Berenson said.