With the reshuffling of NCAA Division I college hockey prompted by the addition of Penn State and the Big Ten Conference in the 2013-2014 season, Hockey East could find itself adding one of the nation’s most prominent institutions: Notre Dame.
“It’s a possibility,” acknowledged Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson. “I know our athletic director and associate athletic director are doing their due diligence in looking at all of the alternatives.”
“I have a lot of respect for the programs and coaches in Hockey East,” said Jackson, the former Lake Superior State head coach. “That has been one of the premier leagues in the country over the last 15 years.”
Hockey East had a string of three consecutive NCAA championships snapped this past season when Minnesota-Duluth of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association captured its first title.
The Big Ten will take three schools from Notre Dame’s current conference, the Central Collegiate Hockey Association: Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State.
WCHA members Minnesota and Wisconsin will join the three CCHA schools along with Penn State.
The likely possibilities for Notre Dame include joining Hockey East, remaining in the CCHA, joining the WCHA or getting an associate membership in the Big Ten.
Notre Dame is in the Big East in every sport except football. It is a Division I independent in football. It is a national championship contender in several sports including hockey. It has made five NCAA tourney appearances in the last six years, including two Frozen Four berths in the last four.
Jackson said they will be looking at being in a conference with “like-minded schools” and that pertains to academics and other areas in addition to athletics.
“It’s not just about the hockey end of it,” said Jackson. “And we’re also looking at our access to TV rights.”
After the defections of the three schools, the CCHA will be left with eight schools, but four of them are Division II schools in other sports: Alaska, Northern Michigan, Ferris State and Lake Superior State. Miami of Ohio, Western Michigan and Bowling Green are other schools that are Division I across the board along with Notre Dame.
The CCHA tournament is held in Detroit, so losing Michigan and Michigan State will hurt.
The WCHA will have 10 remaining schools after Minnesota and Wisconsin depart, but eight are Division II or III in other sports. North Dakota and Denver are the only schools that are Division I in all sports.
Eight of Hockey East’s 10 teams are Division I across the board. Merrimack and UMass Lowell are Division II in other sports.
There are plenty of other similarities between Notre Dame and the Hockey East schools.
Notre Dame is a Catholic institution as are Providence College, Merrimack and Boston College.
Notre Dame and Providence are Big East rivals in every sport except football.
Boston College used to be in the Big East until it left to join the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Notre Dame will be moving into a new arena this season and every Hockey East school, with the exception of Providence, has either moved into a new facility or undertaken a significant renovation project in excess of $1 million since the inception of the league in 1984-85.
Hockey East is currently negotiating a TV rights deal. It has had a contract with the New England Sports Network, but that expired and league commissioner Joe Bertagna is currently negotiating with NESN. The league has two years left on a three-year deal with the CBS Sports Network, which airs a game of the week on Friday nights although it isn’t exclusively linked to Hockey East. Comcast SportsNet New England could be another option and Bertagna said Versus, which carries NHL games, has expressed a desire to branch into college hockey.
Bertagna didn’t want to discuss specifics pertaining to the addition of Notre Dame because “the subject is so sensitive right now.”
“We are waiting to see what other schools do,” said Bertagna. “When you talk about growing the league there are two things you have to consider, one is philosophical and one is logistical.
“Any program that approaches us and would bring value to the league is someone we’d certainly want to talk to,” said Bertagna.
He is not a fan of having an odd number of teams so if Notre Dame does join Hockey East, it would appear Bertagna would want to add another school.
“Having an even number of teams always works from a scheduling standpoint. It’s hard to imagine having a team not playing a league game down the stretch on a Saturday night in February,” said Bertagna.
Travel would be another issue as adding Notre Dame, which is located in South Bend, Ind., would mean a flight each season for the league’s other 10 (or 11 if they add two) schools depending upon how the league handles it. For example, it could branch out into two divisions.
Either way, it would definitely mean several flights for Notre Dame, although the Irish are financially sound.
“It would be different,” conceded Jackson. “But the WCHA teams fly all over the place. And we have some programs in our league that travel long distances, although it’s pretty much a bus league like Hockey East.”
Maine coach Tim Whitehead said adding Notre Dame is “intriguing.”
“To have a university like Notre Dame join your league would certainly be a positive. But one obvious issue is who would be the 12th team?” posed Whitehead.
He added that there is “so much that goes into something like this. It wouldn’t be fair to speculate. It’s up to the commissioner and the athletic directors.”
One possible 12th team would be nationally prominent Miami and another could be one of the schools in Atlantic Hockey that would like to have the full complement of scholarships (18). Atlantic Hockey only allows 12 and had a proposal to expand to 13 scholarships was recently shot down by one vote.
Jackson said, “Our university is open to everything right now. As I’ve said, a lot has to do with going to a conference with like-minded schools. The Catholic aspect and academic aspect are strong suits for Hockey East.”
But he also stressed that they are sympathetic to the plight of other schools and they want to make a decision that will be “in the best interest of college hockey.”
One thing everybody agrees upon is 2013 isn’t far away so a decision has to be made relatively soon since so many of the country’s 58 schools (Penn State will be No. 59) will be impacted.