The writing was on the wall the past several seasons.
Last year, it was etched into NCAA history with the decision to dissolve the four-team College Hockey America league when the regular season ended.
A combination of major factors brought about the CHA demise: Findlay and Wayne State had dropped men's hockey; significant travel costs and loss of class time for Bemidji State (Minnesota), Niagara University (upstate New York), Robert Morris University (Pennsylvania), and Alabama-Huntsville; and the undercurrent of dissatisfaction across the other leagues that one team in a four-team league automatically qualified for the 16-team NCAA tournament by winning the two-day CHA tournament.
In a series of swift decisions last winter, the WCHA admitted Bemidji, then Nebraska-Omaha defected from the CCHA and joined Bemidji as the 12th team in a new WCHA alignment (NHL.com's feature next week).
Atlantic Hockey admitted Niagara and Robert Morris as its 11th and 12th members.
Alabama-Huntsville, denied admission by the CCHA to replace Nebraska-Omaha, plays an independent schedule this season.
"We cannot afford to lose Division I programs," said Atlantic commissioner Bob DeGregorio, the driving force in the new Atlantic alignment. "We saved two programs and at the same time we strengthened our league as a whole."
The 2010 Frozen Four in Detroit featured the first Atlantic team in league history with the Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers, also the last team to join Atlantic from Division 3 just three years ago.
Niagara University's resume includes two CHA titles, two CHA Tourney titles, and two NCAA appearances the past 10 years under head coach Dave Burkholder. Their first league game is Oct. 29 vs. Mercyhurst.
Burkholder has also led the Purple Eagles to seven seasons above .500.
The 2010-11 season finds Burkholder more than excited.
"Get back to the NCAA Tourney," he emphasized as a major goal. "There is nothing better than March Madness.
"[Overall], geographically it is a great fit for our program. We will really cut down on student athletes' missed class time because most of our league schedule now consists of day-of-game travel. As much as the rivalries that we created in the CHA were fun and exciting, this move is one that feels fresh and really full of uncertainty as it pertains to where we will fit in the league standings. With that uncertainty brings added motivation from our players to make as much of an impact as possible this year."
Burkholder is also enthused about those new next-door rivalries.
"I am really looking forward to playing the schools that are in driving distance of each other," he told NHL.com. "This will allow schools' fans and alumni to join their respective teams on the road. We have had some hotly-contested games against RIT and Canisuis. Now that there are league ramifications on the line the level of intensity should increase dramatically, which will only add to what have already been great games."
Last year, Robert Morris played back-to-back games that stunned the college hockey world. "Upset" and "great" don't come close to defining the Colonials' two wins on Jan. 8 and 10 over nationally-ranked Miami, which went to the Frozen Four in 2009 and 2010.
RMU has had one season at .500 in its seven-year run under Derek Schooley; the Colonials have never appeared in NCAA postseason play.
No matter, those two games and a new league have Schooley and company off and running with two league victories last weekend at AIC.
"We are excited about the ability to play new teams in new buildings," he said. "We have 27 league games compared to 18 in the CHA, so that is something we look forward to every week. Non-conference games are great preparation for league games, but it was unhealthy to play as many non-conference games as we have played in years past. We have had good rivalries with former CHA foes in Niagara and Air Force, so we expect those to continue. We look forward to developing new rivalries with some of our geographical opponents like Mercyhurst, Canisius and RIT."
Schooley's goals for the season are basic.
"Obviously, every team's goal is to get to the NCAA Tournament," he said. "We want to play more consistently at home and on the road. If we can do that then we should have a difficult team to play against.
"The Atlantic Hockey Association has very good teams, with very good coaches that come ready to play."
The new season features two more in Niagara University and Robert Morris University.
New Atlantic Tournament format: Come the first three weekends in March, the new 12-team Atlantic Hockey Tournament will roll out its new and unique playoff format. Atlantic will feature a single-game elimination in the first round across eight teams.
All teams are broken into scheduling region (East-West) and the top-two finishers (according to the overall standings) receive byes in the first round. The remaining eight teams are broken into their scheduling regions and will be seeded 3-6 in each region with 3 against 6 and 4 vs. 5.
The quarterfinals will then be a best-of-three series with the remaining eight teams re-seeded 1-8 according to the final regular season standings. The top four seeds (1-4) will host the bottom four seeds (5-8).
The semifinals will be reseeded with the highest remaining seed playing the lowest remaining seed and the other two remaining seeds facing each other on Friday, March 18.
The two winners play for the championship on Saturday, March 19. Semifinals and finals at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, N.Y.
All five Division I leagues will now have a different tournament design. The winner of each league tournament receives an automatic invite to the 16-team NCAA tournament. The other 11 teams are selected at-large and according to final pairwise/power rankings.
On Campus Clips:
Michigan's 4-1 win over Bowling Green last Friday night was coach Red Berenson
's 700th career victory, all at his alma mater over 27 years behind the bench. He joins five others in NCAA history in that coaching club: Ron Mason, Jerry York, Jack Parker, Bob Peters and Rick Comley. Only Parker (BU) has more career wins at same school in NCAA history (836); Mason leads all at 924. ... In the signature kickoff to the new season, BU edged Notre Dame, 5-4, in the Ice Breaker Tournament final Sunday afternoon in St. Louis, led by freshman Sahir Gill
's goal and three assists. ... Correction: Last week's column referenced Boston College as playing in six title games since 1998. The Eagles have played in seven (98, 00, 01, 06, 07, 08, 10).