It is strictly speculation at this point but some media outlets and social media sources are anticipating either a working arrangement or outright merger between the Summit League and the NCHC. Add the double-hatting by Fenton who is working as a consultant to the Summit League effective January 1 while finishing out the college hockey season as commissioner of the NCHC, to the reality that there is no immediate public effort to replace his role within the NCHC, this speculation is understandable.
A potential merger of the Summit League with the singularly focused and massively successful NCHC may be problematic for some current Summit League members who offer sports in other conferences. College Hockey News postulates Miami and Western Michigan could use this merger as an opportunity to flee to the CCHA while St. Thomas and Augustana could be their replacements. This move would also allow NCHC members St. Cloud and Minnesota Duluth to transition from DII to DI status with an invitation from the Summit League.
In other words, there are plenty of moving parts involved and it would take years for this plan to come to fruition, but it’s not entirely all that far-fetched.
Fenton offered his thoughts on the Summit League’s future in the presser below. Fenton emphasized the Summit League’s “strong foundational base” and his early efforts will focus on the reaffirmation by current members of their long-term commitment to the conference while looking at membership and expansion. As with the NCHC, Fenton will continue to focus his efforts on the fan experience and student-athlete experience. Just to be clear, though, Fenton gave no indication of an impending merger between the NCHC and the Summit League.
Only three schools in the Summit League currently offer hockey – Denver, North Dakota and Omaha. Schools such as Oral Roberts and Western Illinois are unlikely to add DI hockey and UMKC seems unlikely to have the financial resources to do so. Of course, as with many other sports in the Summit League conference, hockey may not be required of all members. However, the conference could require current and new members to keep all Conference sports in the Summit League or impose a steep penalty for an exit.
The potential downside for Denver is an all-or-nothing option that leaves DU playing in the Dakotas for their primary conference sports. Playing NCHC members North Dakota and Omaha in non-hockey sports in the Summit League has been met with a rather large thud by students, Denver sports fans, and student-athletes who (correctly) feel that there is little alignment between member schools and DU. Unless Denver could be an affiliate hockey member in a merged Summit League, they may find it difficult to extricate themselves and move to a more appropriate conference with “like schools” at a future date.
Another risk is moving from a highly successful ‘hockey-centric’ conference to one with many other priorities. Could this water down the best collegiate hockey conference in the land? The answer is likely yes (See: the Big 10).
In an entirely new and likely unprecedented scenario, we could see Fenton run both conferences and share staff resources to optimize overall conference resources. It’s an intriguing idea but how would ‘non-hockey’ members feel about picking up the tab for supporting hockey? This could prove to be a challenging issue and alienate non-hockey members.
The final wildcard is football – a non-starter for DU. A number of Summit League members sponsor football. Should the Summit make the extremely unlikely move of adding football, resources will be split both on campuses and at the league office and would pose a significant barrier that would surely be met by Denver’s objections.
No doubt, DU will have to be agile to meet the ever-changing conference environment. It could just be a coincidence that Josh Fenton moved to the Summit League from the NCHC. However, where there is smoke, there may be fire and only time will tell how this will all unfold.