R.J. Umberger, from Pittsburgh, was picked 16th overall by the Vancouver Canucks in 2001. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)
Division I hockey is coming to Penn State University. And with that, the NCAA landscape gets a lot more enticing.
During a summer where high-profile player defections to major junior and the pro ranks humbled the college game, the announcement of a Nittany Lions squad taking root is huge news – and not just for those in the greater State College, Pa. area.
“I think it’s a very good thing,” said Paul Kelly of College Hockey Inc., which is hosting a scouting event in Toronto this weekend for NCAA schools. “With Penn State, you’re adding a world-class academic and athletic institution. It’s a boost not only to hockey, but sports overall.”
The nuts and bolts are still being worked out, but the Nittany Lions will likely begin their Division I life as an independent before joining up with a power conference. Geographically, the CCHA makes the most sense, but the major rumblings involved in this story is how a Big Ten Conference – featuring Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Minnesota – could now be formed. The Big Ten cable TV network is a huge cash cow and Big Ten hockey would bolster the schedule.
“The biggest thing any network wants is inventory,” said one insider. “College basketball usually runs Thursday and Saturday, so Friday nights are open. And Penn State comes in with half a million living alumni.”
That’s a lot of potential hockey fans tuning in, especially when the fans already have a hate-on for the Ohio States and Michigans thanks to football and basketball rivalries.
There has, of course, been worry about what taking the five best teams from the CCHA and WCHA would do to the college hockey landscape, but I think adding a conference will help. As it is now, Alabama-Huntsville is looking for a home and Bemidji State jumped through hoops to get into the WCHA. And with RIT’s miracle run to the Frozen Four (with Bemidji State preceding them the year prior), it’s obvious smaller schools can have an impact when given the chance. Kelly agrees with that sentiment.
“I think they’ll come together,” he said. “College coaches don’t want to see the loss of programs.”
Wherever the Nittany Lions end up, they’ll likely get knocked around the first year or so, but progress won’t take long.
“They’re going to have a natural flow of highly-skilled players into their program,” Kelly said. “Penn State will have an immediate crop of kids who want to play there.”
Geographically, Pennsylvania and the nearby states have been churning out good hockey players for a while now. The Pittsburgh Hornets prep program has turned out NHLers such as Ryan Malone, R.J. Umberger and John Zeiler (who led the ECAC in assists in 2003-04 with St. Lawrence) as well as the Saad brothers. George, 19, actually plays for Penn State’s current club team, while Brandon, 17 and a top-10 prospect for the 2011 draft, chose Saginaw of the Ontario League over an NCAA scholarship. Would his decision have been made harder if he could have played Division I in his own backyard?
True, there already is a Division I hockey school in the area (Robert Morris University), but Penn State’s size and name would give it a big local recruiting advantage.
Bolstering Penn State’s ascension even further is the fact the Frozen Four will be held in Pennsylvania two straight years in the near future – Pittsburgh in 2013 and Philadelphia in 2014 – not to mention the NHL’s Penguins are hosting an outdoor game this season and either the Pens or Flyers have played for the Stanley Cup the past three campaigns.
According to the insider, the timing is coincidental, but fortuitous.
“All of a sudden you’ve got a hockey hotbed,” he said. “We’re saying, let’s get the momentum going, let’s get the kids and the coaches.”
Added Kelly: “It’s a great fit and great timing.”
The only question now is who’s next? It’s no secret the West Coast is the final frontier and having teams in California (or another Pac-10 state) would be huge for the college game’s footprint.
With NHL prospects coming from all markets now, the homegrown talent is there. Now it’s time to see who will step up like Penn State did.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday.
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