NCHC must look west for growth

As an old musher used to say, “The lead dog has the best view”.

In this writer’s view, the NCHC is currently sitting pretty. However, now is not the time to sit and enjoy the sights. The NCHC should begin to work to create a short and long-term strategic plan to grow the NCHC into a truly national conference. The plan would protect the league’s short-term stability and provide long-term growth while ensuring its premier status. 

Puck Swami and others have mentioned the potential growth of the Big 10. In this writer’s view, they are unlikely to poach an outside member who might threaten original B1G members potential development or success. They are going to focus on growing their core hockey programs – Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, and Michigan. And Nebraska and Iowa may have facilities in place in the next several years to enter the B1G as well. Of course, the B1G has the potential to become the powerhouse conference in college hockey – but they have yet to prove it.

On the eastern flank of the NCHC, the Miami Redhawks have had a tough couple of years in the ultra-competitive NCHC. They have great facilities, solid coaching, and the potential to do great things in the NCHC. They lack a quality, regional rivalries like DU-CC and North Dakota-UMD. The NCHC needs to add some depth and might consider bringing in Miami’s regional MAC (Mid-American Conference) rival Bowling Green (current NCHC Western Michigan is a MAC member, too) into the conference. Even in a down year, the four-game regular season battles between the regional Ohio rivals would fill their arenas and build loyalty and conference energy. As a founding member of the NCHC, Miami sits on an NCHC island.

Once the NCHC shores up the eastern front, its time to look west. And that is a longer term proposition.

The growth of the United States population, as well as the explosion of youth hockey, is not in the rust belt. It’s in the west, specifically California and to a lesser degree the south. While the PAC-12 will likely never add more than 3-4 programs, and even that will take a while, the western US offers a stable source of future growth of US collegiate hockey. If 1 or 2 western programs get established, like Penn State did in the northeast, and enjoy some early success, the NCHC will benefit. However, the NCHC must act as an enabler of this growth. Historically, conferences are passive and wait for member defections before they respond to changes. In this case, the NCHC should take an active role in shaping and influencing the future of college hockey – and future conference membership.

The NCHC needs to more actively support and encourage new programs to want to elevate to the Division I level by developing clear league membership criteria, establishing facility standards and providing operating pro formas/costs which would allow potential members to manage the transition much more smoothly.

Let’s face it, it looked pretty unseemly when Arizona State went public with their desires to go DI yet they were completely unprepared for the task in front of them. Active engagement would eliminate some of the fits and starts experienced by western hockey club programs considering entry into the Division I ranks. Rather than being one of the conferences in play, the NCHC should become a ‘strategic partner’ and help facilitate Division I entry.

On the western front, the Arizona State arena situation continues to wobble. On April 20th, the Glendale Star reported that Arizona Senate Bill 1149, to provide public support for a new arena for the NHL Arizona Coyotes (and potential Sun Devil shared facility), was DOA.  The ASU athletic director, Ray Anderson, keeps throwing out dates and options without a firm plan in place – “We want to be 19-20 at the latest in our own facility, or a facility that we can call ours, home, for the long term,” he said. “It may have changed in somebody else’s mind but it didn’t change in my mind.”

Uh, Ray, that means time to break ground THIS YEAR.

And the wild card? UNLV is looking to jump into Division I soon, too. And their situation may be much more tenable than the Sun Devils. With the new NHL Golden Knights T-Mobile arena a straight line only 2.6 miles from campus, they have options – but maybe not the funding. They also recently added a new athletic director, Desiree Reed-Francois, so it is not clear how much support or money hockey has in the Sin City.

It is obviously a complicated and costly proposition to run a D1 hockey program and manage the associated Title IX ramifications. And, it is, generally, a lengthy process. However, according to an article in College Sports News, there is a host of schools in the west that have the potential to support a D1 hockey program such as Portland State, Stanford, Boise State, University of Montana, UCLA, Oregon, USC, and Washington. Any of these schools would be logical candidates for entry into the NCHC.

The future for the NCHC doesn’t lie in taking in more second tier Minnesota universities such as Minnesota State and turning into a regional, niche conference.

We recently quoted Wayne Gretzky – and it applies here, “skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.”

That would be a great idea for the NCHC.