“HOME STRETCH” SPORTS COLUMN — PETE TEMPLE, SPORTS EDITOR
Here is today’s collegiate sports pop quiz:
Name the sport in which the conference landscape is undergoing radical changes, the strongest programs have devised ways to further increase their advantage, TV is calling the shots, and a development at Penn State has sent shock waves through programs across the country.
Yes, you guessed it. College hockey.
OK, you probably didn’t guess that, unless you belong to that elite club known as the HDHFM (Half-dozen Hockey Fans of Monticello).
Which means you probably also didn’t hear that in March 2011, the formation of a Big Ten Conference for men’s hockey was announced.
There were five Big Ten schools that already had men’s hockey programs – Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State.
Big Ten by-laws state that the conference cannot sanction a sport unless there are six programs.
So when Penn State announced that it was beginning a Division I hockey program, no doubt with a little nudge from the ubiquitous Big Ten Network (I got that word in there, Tracy Cigrand), a conference was born. And the ripple effect of conference changes began.
The move was made, it seems certain, to further the recruiting advantages of the Big Ten schools involved. Four of the six (the three M’s and Wisconsin) are perennial powers. And with the advantages provided by a network TV package, they only figure to get stronger.
One of the casualties of these moves is the possible demise (or at least the diminishing) of one of college hockey’s greatest rivalries: Minnesota vs. North Dakota.
I have been on both sides of this. In my younger years I was a Golden Gopher hockey fan, just as I am in every other college sport. Then the Gophers fired a coach I had met, liked and supported, and I couldn’t get past my anger.
A co-worker, who had attended North Dakota, got me tepidly following the school’s hockey team. The more I watched, the stronger my interest became.
Then, in 1997, the Fighting Sioux won a national championship. That happened less than two months before my mother passed away from cancer. Having that hockey diversion during Mom’s illness was a Godsend, and the deal was sealed. My heart belonged to the Gophers in all other college sports; and to the Sioux in hockey.
North Dakota, by the way, has joined some other hockey programs to attempt a “power play” of their own. The eight schools – most of which have had plenty of hockey success – have formed the pretentiously-named National Collegiate Hockey Conference, also set to begin in the fall of 2013.
The Big Ten and the NCHC will be just fine. The conference that most of these schools left behind is the WCHA, and nine other schools have banded together to try to keep that conference alive.
The new WCHA seems certain to lose much of its profile. The CCHA died, and the remaining teams scattered to the lesser conferences that remain.
So a great rivalry is crippled, several pretty good programs suddenly face terribly unfair advantages, and the gap widens.
Money talks, even in a niche college sport like hockey.