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College hockey's crystal ball

End Zone



Talk to almost anyone who cares about college hockey, and you'll find an abundance of passion. Not just on the inside, but among fans and even media who cover the sport.

They'll talk about great memories, long-standing rivalries, all kinds of traditions and how unspoiled college hockey has remained, especially compared to football and basketball. Oh sure, there's pressure to win, and coaches can lose their jobs for not living up to expectations, especially in states like Minnesota and Michigan where the arenas, budgets and expectations can be bigger. But none of that has truly threatened college hockey as we've known it.

With Penn State deciding to add men's and women's hockey at the major-college level, we're hearing more and more talk about the Big Ten Conference pulling together its hockey programs into one league — the Big Ten, obviously, no matter how many members it might have.

That would mean Minnesota and Wisconsin leaving the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and combining with Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State from the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, plus Penn State with its planned $88 million arena. Penn State will start its programs soon, aiming for conference status when that new palace opens in 2014.

That league also would have national exposure from the Big Ten Network, a cable-TV operation that's even available in the Colorado Springs market (Comcast channel 181).

How certain is it? Minnesota coach Don Lucia, who formerly headed Colorado College's program before taking over the Gophers in 1999, has told media that he doesn't think Penn State would be taking these steps without having some guarantee for the future.

If that happens, there almost certainly would be a scramble among other WCHA and CCHA teams. One rumor puts Colorado College and the University of Denver into a new league with the likes of North Dakota, Notre Dame, Miami (Ohio), St. Cloud State, Minnesota-Duluth and Nebraska-Omaha.

We'll probably be hearing other similar proposals. It's likely the WCHA, now up to 12 teams with the addition this year of Bemidji State and Nebraska-Omaha, would try to hold together without Wisconsin and Minnesota to preserve its nearly 60-year history.

Here's another idea: Why not add Air Force into the mix? As of this season, the Atlantic Hockey Association includes 12 members of its own, including the Falcons. But of the other 11 AHA schools, Robert Morris is the farthest west in Pittsburgh, and it's another 1,428 miles west from there to Colorado Springs.

One answer might be Air Force, Colorado College and Denver along with Alaska (Fairbanks), Alaska Anchorage, Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota State (Mankato) and St. Cloud State.

Then maybe we'd see a group including the likes of Notre Dame, Miami (Ohio), Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan, Western Michigan, Ferris State, Bowling Green, Lake Superior State, Bemidji State and perhaps Alabama-Huntsville.

Sure, this is all guesswork. But there's an underlying message that can't be ignored. The world of college hockey as we've known it might not last much longer, thanks to the Big Ten. By pulling marquee teams and markets from the WCHA and CCHA, the Big Ten will force a shakeup.

If schools such as Colorado College and Denver (and let's include Air Force) are smart, they won't wait to see what happens. They'll be proactive, forming new alliances before others do so. North Dakota will be a major player in these changing times, but you'd have to assume the Nodaks would want to preserve as much of the WCHA as possible. The non-Big Ten schools in the CCHA, with smaller arenas and budgets, would likely be more into self-preservation, to limit travel.

Of course, Air Force might have no interest in joining CC and Denver. Playing in the AHA, with its mostly second-tier programs, has given the Falcons a better chance. Who knows, Air Force might look to align with a different group.

Regardless, the stability that has characterized college hockey for decades is about to vanish. And it won't make any sense to fight it.

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