Ready or not, a new era in college hockey is upon us.
With the formation of the Big Ten and National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) taking three Minnesota teams from the Western College Hockey Association (WCHA), the Division I college hockey landscape in our backyard will look drastically different this season.
The University of Minnesota is headed to the Big Ten, while St. Cloud State University and the University of Minnesota-Duluth jump to the NCHC. Remaining in the WCHA, which merged with teams from the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, are Bemidji State and Minnesota State University, Mankato.
The State of Hockey might be splintered, but the hope is that out of the debris the college game will gain prominence nationally.
The fan reaction to the change has ranged from negative to venomous. Last season, reports rolled out that when a Big Ten commercial was shown at Mariucci Arena, the Gophers’ home rink, fans booed the spot.
“There is a little trepidation with some of the fans at times, but I do believe that they’re going to see we’re going to have at Minnesota the best of both worlds,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said during the Big Ten’s media day. “We’re part of the Big Ten. We’ll continue to play our in-state rivals, a lot of our former rivals from the WCHA over time, and I think it’s going to be a very successful move for us in our program.”
One weekend where the in-state rivalry will continue is during the North Star College Cup. The inaugural tournament, which will feature all five State of Hockey college teams on a rotating basis, is Jan. 24-25, 2014 at Xcel Energy Center.
This season, SCSU, MSU, Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth will all take part in the tourney, while Bemidji will be idle this year. The two semifinals will be played on the 24th and the championship game will be played the next night. The St. Cloud State will face the Gophers in one semifinal while Mankato will play UMD in the other. The tournament is sure to keep the in-State-of-Hockey rivalries going as the winner of the Cup will have bragging rights for an entire year.
Additionally, the Twin Cities will remain the home for collegiate postseason tournaments.
Xcel Energy Center will house the inaugural Big Ten Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament from March 20-22, 2014. The single-elimination tournament will feature all six Big Ten teams. However, the tournament will be bi-annual with Joe Louis Arena (Detroit will host in 2015 and 2017) with the tourney returning to Saint Paul in 2016.
Minneapolis will be the site of the first NCHC tournament, as the top four teams from the conference faceoff at Target Center during the same weekend, March 21-22, 2014. The NCHC has an agreement to host its tourney at Target Center for the next five years.
The problem that many fans see is the competition, not between schools, but between conferences. With the Big Ten tourney taking place at Xcel Energy Center this season, the WCHA Final Five, a Saint Paul staple since 2000, will head to Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich., this season. It will return to Xcel Energy Center in 2015 and 2017 while the Big Ten tourney is in Detroit.
Not coincidentally, the Big Ten and NCHC held their season kickoff media events on the same day, Sept. 19, at Xcel Energy Center and Target Center, respectively; essentially making media members choose between the two locales.
While there has been in-state dissension about the fraction of the WCHA and the spawning of the two new conferences, the parties involved hope to grow the college game nationally. The Big Ten hopes that the established rivalries with more nationally prominent sports, like college football and basketball, carries over to the ice along with national media attention.
The Big Ten expects more than 70 games to be televised, with at least 34 on national outlets. The Big Ten Network is planning to show Friday night doubleheaders throughout the winter in hopes to up attention and exposure.
Meanwhile, 18 NHCH games are scheduled to broadcast nationally on CBS Sports Network, including the conference tournament.
Regardless if you’re a fan of the new conferences and college hockey outlook, toss aside the neophobia and get accustomed to the new scene in the State of Hockey because, as Minnesota native Bob Dylan once sang, “The times they are a-changin’.”
Actually, they already have.