In a somewhat surprising turn of events, after Arizona State had announced that it had applied for membership with the NCHC, the conference announced that it will not pursue expansion.
In a release from earlier today, the NCHC stated:
“After careful consideration and a thorough vetting process, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference’s Board of Directors announced the Conference will not move forward with membership expansion at this time. We will continue to be attentive to the college hockey landscape and any future changes that may come. However, our focus right now is guided by what we can do to strengthen our current membership into the future.” – Commissioner Josh Fenton
Over the past few months, despite repeated denials from the NCHC, many speculated about the possibility of conference expansion. Minnesota State-Mankato first applied for conference membership a little more than a month ago and then last week, Arizona State had officially applied for membership after being rebuffed by the Big Ten. As a result, in many circles, it was all but a forgone conclusion that both the Mavericks and Sun Devils would be the next two members of the premier conference in college hockey.
In the end, it obviously became clear that the NCHC was already in a strong enough position that it did not need to add two more teams to remain competitive. After all, in the three years since it’s inception, it has sent no fewer than three teams to the NCAA Tournament and has had at least one representative at each Frozen Four in that span.
No conference is in as strong a position on the ice as the NCHC at the moment, so from a performance standpoint, it didn’t seem to make sense to bring in any other teams that could potentially dilute the strong competition top to bottom (yes, even CC).
The only factor that could have potentially swayed the decision the other way seemed to be the conference’s finances. If the conference were in dire straits financially, expansion to include Power Five member Arizona State would have been a no-brainer, regardless of the on-ice performance.
However, the NCHC isn’t struggling. It’s making enough money to operate and continue to help the current eight members grow on and off the ice. So essentially, expansion didn’t make sense from a financial point of view, either.
It was a fun few months thinking about making annual trips to Tempe to watch college hockey’s best take on the new kids on the block. In the end, the NCHC had to make the decision that made the most sense for the current members.
As some conferences have learned in the past five years, it’s not smart to expand just for expansion’s sake. There has to be an apparent and obvious need for more teams for expansion to make sense. That need just wasn’t there.
Of course, this doesn’t preclude the conference from changing its mind in the next couple of years. If the NCHC continues to dominate, it may end up outgrowing its current set-up and the addition of another two teams could become necessary.
For the moment, though college hockey’s best conference is going to remain exactly what it has been for two years: the toughest meat grinder in the NCAA.