Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography
To put it nicely, to grow the game with consistency, the Men’s College hockey game at the Division One level needs more conferences. While it is true that Atlantic Hockey is entertaining expansion pitches this month, the truth of all of the growth of this sport is simple.
Atlantic Hockey cannot, nor should not be asked to shoulder the sole burden of adding new members to the game.
For this sport to grow, in the long run, we need more schools willing to form conferences with new members.
Well, as more members come in from different parts of the country, especially in the south and pacific northwest, travel costs for the incumbents in this sport will skyrocket. In addition, fans in this sport often are rivals with schools closest to them, regardless of conference, if they are at the same level.
In addition, take a look at the rebirth of the CCHA under its current iteration. That conference formed in part because its members wanted to consolidate their footprint, and keep costs down to some level. We would argue that Atlantic Hockey has some of that cost containment at its core, and as the league gets more members wanting to join, over time the members of a conference that grows beyond 12 conferences could be served to bring back another conference, College Hockey America.
Well, that conference with six or seven members could work in concert with Atlantic Hockey to do a couple of things. First, they could create a scheduling alliance to occupy some non conference games every year, and ensure robust competition, giving both members of the new conference more opportunities to boost their pairwise standing than they have now ( eight to ten non conference games in total, compared to a maximum of six non exempt games now).
In addition, bringing back the CHA would drive down costs for members of Atlantic Hockey who may not want to take longer bus trips, or plane trips any more. If we posited that Navy (the Midshipmen have been in talks to join the Division One game for years) would join this conference with the Army and Air Force, that gives us three schools with a rich history. Now, add in Lindenwood, who is planning to join the Division One scene in two years, and we find ourselves at four with a conference already starting with a strong foundation. You could then add in Alabama Huntsville for five, and, should their feasibility study go well, and the school back it, Tennessee State could join to make a six team conference. You could also extend invites to Liberty, who has a win over a Division One program, an ESPN deal, and a beautiful facility already, Long Island as well, given that the Sharks are expanding their Division One footprint rapidly and gaining notoriety for how well they support the growth of opportunities for their student athletes. This would allow other members in Atlantic Hockey more cost control over their own budget, and provide room for that conference, should more teams want to join it, a seventh conference with an automatic bid to guarantee at least two schools Air Force Academy Hockey Head Coach Frank Serratore referred to as ” have nots” to join as well. In addition, the success of the reborn CHA could spark the ideas of forming other new conferences throughout the game.
Take the west coast. If we know that Arizona State would be a part of any Pac-12 conference (we do), we could then look to Las Vegas. UNLV produced the first line center for the three time Atlantic Hockey Regular Season champs (AIC) in Elijah Barriga, and has a big foot print in the area already. That gives us two schools, and an impasse once again. If this Pac 12 worked with the Kraken and Golden Knights to form programs in their areas (UNLV, Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State) and work with ones already in their areas (Alaska, and Alaska Anchorage) then you get another strong conference with regional viability pretty fast. Now, if you look at what we have already, there are always opportunities for schools to move around, where it makes sense for both new school and conference alike. The dynamic of forming new conferences like these two would create a framework for members looking to join, and for ones like Augustana who have announced intentions, more options to join a conference best for them, compared to one that will have them. It gives more power and viability to new programs to compete right away, and a lasting infrastructure that will support them, and do the thing we all want to do, grow the game, while hopefully providing administrators with the money and encouragement to do so.
Remember, there are about eight or nine teams of players in the transfer portal right now, and a lot more uncommitted players about to age out of junior hockey with Division One talent, but no home. For a sport that has a myriad of junior hockey lockers, and interest in the game, it is incumbent on those looking to grow the game to continue to search for new ways to do that both inside and outside of the framework they currently have. It cannot be on one conference or school to figure things out, it is on all members of this great game, and on all of us to continue to support schools looking to get into this game that is one of the best parts of sport in North America, not just at the college level.
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