Sam Warning of the Minnesota Gophers battles to the puck with Anders Lee of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. (Photo by Scott A. Schneider/Getty Images)
The Frozen Four kicks off Thursday in Pittsburgh and with the tournament coming back to Pennsylvania in 2014 when Philadelphia hosts, it’s hard not to think about how Penn State’s new program has completely altered the college landscape. Next year will see new conferences begin (Big Ten, NCHC), while others disappear (CCHA). Penn State went from club team to Division 1 thanks to a major cash gift from Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula, but where else can we expect to see new college teams come from in the future? According to one source, we’re likely years away from anyone else taking the D1 plunge, but it’s fun to debate. Here’s a look at some of the big-name candidates.
Thanks in large part to the United States League, folks in Nebraska have developed a taste for hockey and Nebraska’s entry into the Big Ten makes it a viable candidate for D1. John Breslow, who once owned a share of the Phoenix Coyotes, has funded an arena for the school’s basketball teams (which could host hockey) and the Breslow Ice Center, which has the potential for a rink with seating capacity up to 6,000 fans. Plus, the school’s new athletic director, Shawn Eichorst, is seen as very hockey-friendly and the Huskers would have a great non-conference rival in the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks.
Other Big Ten schools that would seem to be good fits for hockey include Illinois and Indiana. In both cases, arenas will be an issue and NCAA hockey has failed in Chicago before, but Champaign may be far enough away to give the Illini (who excel at the club level) a chance. Two other schools to watch are Maryland and Rutgers, both of which are joining the Big Ten. Now that the Washington Capitals have a bigger fan base, college hockey in Maryland doesn’t seem too far-fetched (though Navy was a definitive ‘no’ when I asked about interest in Annapolis), while Rutgers could draw from the growing talent base in New Jersey.
Would this be the easiest recruiting job ever for a college coach? Get a full-ride scholarship to play hockey in sunny California and play against top competition. There are rumblings in L.A. about NCAA hockey and whether it’s USC or UCLA, the grassroots network is there. Beau Bennett, Emerson Etem and Rocco Grimaldi all could have been Trojans or Bruins if the programs were up and running, while travel wouldn’t be as bad as you think: Los Angeles to Denver is just a two-hour flight and Colorado has several top NCAA programs. Plus, if I’m USC, I start a mini-tournament in January and invite the big boys. Anyone in Minnesota or Boston going to turn down a trip to L.A. in the dead of winter?
What would truly open the West Coast up is if Northern California jumped in too. The San Jose Jr. Sharks just graduated their first NHL alum in Matt Tennyson, so maybe California or Stanford come on board.
The Dallas Stars have done an incredible job growing hockey in Texas and with players such as Chris Brown getting to the NHL, the seeds are beginning to bloom. Texas, Texas A & M and North Texas are seen as the top candidates, but naturally it would take a Pegula-like donation to take things to the next level. Mark Cuban has toyed with the idea of getting into the hockey game; would he consider being a college benefactor? If so, geography is once again not a big problem since Colorado and even Alabama-Huntsville aren’t too far away.
The only state school in New England without a D1 program, URI actually has a booster group petitioning for a Rams charge into the big time. Rhode Island already has a home at Boss Ice Arena, built in 2002 and home to the Rams’ club team. Though capacity is only 2,500, that’s actually decent for an NCAA team and would put URI ahead of schools such as Princeton and RIT. Recruiting would be an issue, since the state itself already has Providence and Brown on the scene, but natural rivalries are also in place.
The Billikens played in the CCHA for most of the 1970s before retreating back to club hockey, but St. Louis is a very different market now. Not only are the Blues more vibrant, but programs such as the St. Louis Jr. Blues are churning out more talent, such as Blake Clarke of the North Bay Battalion and Ryan MacInnis (Al’s son) from the U.S. NTDP. And who wouldn’t want a team called the Billikens back on the scene?
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at @THNRyanKennedy.