MARQUETTE - The Big Ten ended months, if not years, of speculation on Monday by making its intentions known that the conference plans to sponsor a NCAA men's Division 1 ice hockey league starting in 2013-14.
All six athletic directors from the Big Ten schools that sponsor hockey - Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Penn State - will unanimously submit a proposal to the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors in June to make the establishment of the league official.
For Northern Michigan University leaders and CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos, the formation of the Big Ten hockey conference is no surprise.
"Today's announcement by the Big Ten does not come as a surprise as we have been engaged in discussing this topic with Big Ten officials for several months now," Anastos said in a release from the league. "We are studying the potential impact of this change and will continue to work closely with our membership and other stakeholders in college hockey to ensure the ongoing long-term success of our league."
The flights of Wisconsin and Minnesota will leave the WCHA with 10 teams, while the CCHA will be left with eight teams minus the Wolverines, Buckeyes and Spartans.
Penn State is set to begin competing in NCAA Division I as an independent in 2012-13 with its new arena to open in time for the Big Ten's inaugural season of hockey the following year.
Many in college hockey, specifically fans who are worried about losing rivalries with the sport's marquee schools, believe the formation of the Big Ten spells doom for NCAA Division II schools like Northern Michigan and Michigan Tech.
NMU head coach Walt Kyle has a different outlook, however, for a sport that has lost programs like Findlay in 2004 and Wayne State in 2008.
"I think it's great for college hockey that we are adding teams like the caliber of Penn State," Kyle said. "I think we've been talking about expanding college hockey for years and we want that. We can't cry when it happens. It's going to be a change. There's certainly going to be a change, but Northern is certainly committed to having a quality Division I hockey team in a quality Division I conference."
NMU Associate Athletics Director of Operations and acting Athletic Director Steve Reed said the university is committed to the CCHA and following the lead of Anastos. NMU President Les Wong echoed that sentiment, saying NMU will continue to be competitive at a national level.
"Northern Michigan University is continuing to aggressively participate in conversations with fellow CCHA member institutions about the future landscape of NCAA Division I college hockey," Wong said in a prepared statement. "We are committed to play hockey competitively at the highest level possible."
The Big Ten conference schedule will consist of 20 league games for each team - 10 home and 10 away - with a conference tournament at the end of the regular season in a location yet to be determined.
In the official release posted by the Big Ten on its website Monday afternoon, the league said, "the Big Ten's men's ice hockey programs will continue to proactively work to maintain a strong schedule of non-conference competition with the Central Collegiate Hockey Association and Western Collegiate Hockey Association."
Teams are allowed to play 34 games in a season, though, certain tournaments and trips to either Alaska-Anchorage or Alaska-Fairbanks don't count against the 34, allowing teams to play 36 regular season games. That leaves 14-16 nonconference games for the Big Ten teams and the Wildcats plan to be a part of that slate, Kyle said.
"That's a ton of games," he said. "Those games are going to have to get spread out to other teams."
The Big Ten hockey conference has always been speculated about, but never given serious consideration - even with the formation of a Big Ten Network - because the conference only had five schools and six are needed for an automatic NCAA tournament bid. When Penn State announced in September that a generous donation would allow the school to go from a club program to NCAA Division I status, talks heated up as the Big Ten finally had it's sixth school.
Now it's up to the WCHA and CCHA and their members to make the next move. The WCHA has said it plans to operate as a 10-team conference and got a peak at the future over the weekend when Minnesota and Wisconsin failed to make the WCHA Final Five in St. Paul, Minn. North Dakota topped Denver in double overtime to sweep the regular and postseason titles.
Michigan was the lone Big Ten school to reach the NCAA tournament after finishing first in the CCHA during the regular season. Michigan took third in the league tournament at Joe Louis Arena where Miami topped Western Michigan in an all-Mid-American Conference Mason Cup final.
As it showed this weekend in the WCHA and CCHA tournaments, college hockey has a great small-school tradition and the sport doesn't want to lose that, Kyle said.
Moving forward, Kyle and the Wildcats plan to be competitive, whether its with the Big Ten schools, without the Big Ten school, in the CCHA or somewhere else.
"We're going to have a quality team in a quality league, where ever that is," Kyle said. "Is it the way the CCHA stands now? Potentially. Is it something else later? Potentially. We won't know until it all shakes out. The people of Marquette need to be reassured, we're committed to having a great program in a great league."