ESCANABA - The winds of change are shifting toward the college hockey world and when the dust settles, it may shake the foundation of the sport to its core.
Surely many rejoiced when the annoucement was made some months ago that Penn State University was starting a Division I hockey program. This put the stars into alignment. Penn State as of the 2012-13 season will field a program as an independent, a sixth Big Ten school playing Division I hockey.
With that all important sixth team in the mix, the other five schools came to a rather obvious conclusion. It was time for a Big Ten hockey conference, which will form at the start of the 2013-14 season. But is Big Ten hockey really what college hockey needs at this time?
The Big Ten was already in many ways at the forefront of the college hockey scene. Michigan and Michigan State are marquee programs that have enjoyed much success in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) conference and on the national stage as well. Wisconsin and Minnesota have always had respectable and historic programs in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA).
Ohio State is the youngest of the Big Ten's five current hockey programs, not coming into existence until 1963, but the Buckeyes have also enjoyed a breakthrough period in the past 15 years, making a Frozen Four in the late 90's.
These five Big Ten schools have had the spotlight in their respective conferences with little interruption since their inceptions. You could even say they've kept their conferences profitable.
The fact of the matter is college hockey is rarely going to get top billing at a school. At Michigan, the sport is far overshadowed by the football and men's basketball programs. You could say the same for Michigan State, Wisconsin, Penn State or any school with a major athletic program.
But what about at Michigan Tech? What about Northern Michigan University and Lake Superior State? At these schools, hockey is the lone Division I sport, the cream of the crop, the big draw.
Being in the same conference as Big Ten schools Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State means getting a home game with all three of them at least once each year. This is where a large portion of athletic revenue is generated for the year. Now they stand to lose it all.
When the three Big Ten schools leave the CCHA, where does Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan University and Lake Superior State make up that gap? Who really thinks Michigan is going to trek up to the Upper Peninsula - or for that matter, Anchorage, Alaska. to play a game when they aren't mandated to by a conference schedule?
Notre Dame and Miami Ohio by default will become the top dogs of a drastically weaker CCHA. Notre Dame in particular likely won't want to stick around to see its hockey reputation suffer. The big fish in a little pond scenario usually doesn't play out too well with the voters.
So where does that leave the CCHA? A good question indeed.
If you need a clue, look no further than Michigan State's recent hiring. Last week CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos was hired to replace the retiring Rick Comley as coach of MSU's hockey program.
To some this may appear to be a pedestrian hiring, but then again, how often do conference commissioners leave their post to take what is in effect, a demotion?
The words that weren't said speak volumes of Anastos' opinion of the CCHA's future.
The hard truth is the CCHA could be in danger of folding down the road. They are at the very least headed for restructuring.
Is there a scenario where schools such as the three Upper Peninsula programs drop down to Division II? At this point, anything is possible.
First and foremost, the conference cannot afford to lose Notre Dame, but to keep them, reassurance in the form of solid replacements for the departing Big Ten teams may be what's needed.
The CCHA will surely miss the leadership Anastos, an experienced and knowledgable hockey mind, provided at the helm. What will his successor have in mind for the salvation of this suddenly troubled conference?
The Big Ten Conference will likely flourish and enjoy the success and attention it has always had, but can college hockey sustain two crumbling conferences? Is one strong small conference better than two full-sized balanced conferences?
The future may well prove otherwise, but at present, this is a move that has many involved in NCAA hockey crying foul.