Eric Burton, a North Dakota hockey blogger and friendly rival of this blog, issued a newsletter with an article entitled, Let’s Leave the NCHC the Way it Is. The piece cites new NCHC commissioner, Heather Weems, considering the possibility of the NCHC falling under or partnering in some way with the Summit League, home to non-hockey sports for NCHC members Denver, North Dakota, and Nebraska-Omaha. Weems did not deny the possibility of an alignment or merging of the two organizations. Burton cited the following from Commissioner Weems:
“Obviously, the Summit makes some sense because we have three institutions who are in the Summit (UND, Denver, Omaha), but we also have institutions who are part of the MAC as the multi-sport league (Western Michigan, Miami). It probably factors in for us who are in the NSIC (Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State) or Colorado College differently. But I think we have to be willing to have that conversation. We have to talk transparently about what’s in the best interest of the league.”
“If some sort of Summit affiliation makes sense as we gain more knowledge about how the NCAA kind of rolls into place, then certainly we can be ready to move in that direction,” she said. “But if what’s in the best interest in our league and our membership right now is to remain as we are, then certainly, we’ll navigate that as well.”
“I think the best thing I can say is that I’m open as we see where the NCAA moves and what happens with multi-sport conferences and single-sport conferences,” Weems said. “The reality is that it’s a conversation we need to have as a league, and we need to understand what implications it has for everyone.”
Since hockey is Denver’s flagship sport, such an alignment as a full member of the Summit League with hockey added would tie DU to the Summit League. It would also open the door to Augustana and St Thomas, the newest D1 hockey programs being added to the NCHC, and the likely exit of Miami and Western Michigan, weakening the on-ice quality. This move would also likely eliminate the consideration of teams outside the northern tier, such as ASU, for membership. Summit League member Western Illinois is already on shaky ground and without interest or ability to add hockey and is likely to exit the conference in either event. It is also unlikely that current member Oral Roberts has much interest in the Summit League adding ice hockey.
A bigger interest of the Summit League over time may center on adding football to this potentially reimagined Summit League. NDSU, UND, SDSU, USD, and Western Illinois play in the Missouri Valley Conference for football. Southern members of the MVC have little interest in traveling north to play in the Dakotas and have made it no secret, even limiting the number of annual trips for conference members to the midwest’s frozen tundra. A conference needs six teams to field an automatic qualifier for division play. If the conference could convert St. Thomas from the Pioneer League or add affiliate members or new football members (Northern Colorado, for example) to create a northern tier football conference, that could be a fit for the football schools. However, just like in the hockey scenario, non-football schools like Omaha, Denver, and Oral Roberts would have little to no interest in subsidizing the administrative cost associated with football nor the added distraction. Plus, don’t forget that none of these three schools has indicated an interest in adding football to their sports menu.
Dialing the heat back a bit, could the NCHC partner with the Summit League to share costs and identify mutually beneficial efficiencies? It’s certainly possible, however, the non-hockey schools would have to see a clear financial benefit from doing so. The same can be said for adding football and the additional support structure at the conference level required to support football by non-football schools.
DU could, potentially, remain an associate member of the Summit League in hockey and pursue membership in another conference. However, that would require the approval of the Summit League. Allowing DU to depart for their Olympic sports may cause more complications for the Summit League than they want to deal with going forward.
The bottom line is there appears to be very little immediate benefit to DU, or the rest of the conference for that matter, to water down the NCHC by pulling it into the Summit League. The NCHC operates at an annual surplus so there is no need to make such a drastic move for the most successful collegiate hockey conference in the country. Such a move would also limit DU’s flexibility to either seek or form a new conference affiliation with like-minded schools for their Olympic sports going forward. Flexibility will be essential as the NCAA continues to restructure Division I while the NCAA itself is undergoing a number of organizational and mission changes to go along with new Name, Image, and Likeness legislation.
Don’t fix what isn’t broken. Leave the NCHC alone.