The Fighting Irish celebrate (Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)
The Fighting Irish will reportedly get back to a more geographically-aligned conference in 2017-18, altering the NCAA landscape dramatically. With the Big Ten now accepting hockey schools outside its traditional membership, could Arizona State become the eighth men's hockey team? This is all big news.
Notre Dame and Michigan will meet in the first round of the Frozen Four on Friday and whichever team loses, they can apparently say "see you in two years." That's because the former CCHA rivals will reportedly be reunited in 2017-18 when Notre Dame joins the Big Ten conference.
This is huge news for college hockey.
The Fighting Irish have been members of Hockey East for the past three seasons. And though it put Notre Dame in the same conference as traditional football rival Boston College, travel was not ideal for the Indiana-based institution. At the time, Penn State's ascension to Division 1 allowed for the creation of a Big Ten conference with Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Big Ten hadn't welcomed schools outside its traditional membership for single sports, so Notre Dame couldn't go there, while negotiations with the new NCHC (North Dakota, Miami, etc.) didn't work out due to TV rights.
But since then, Johns Hopkins joined Big Ten lacrosse, so the situation seemed open. Not only is Notre Dame a good fit for the Big Ten geographically, but the power conference desperately needs another school that is actually good at hockey right now.
For the second straight year, only one Big Ten school made the Frozen Four's field of 16. Minnesota disappointed, Wisconsin cratered again and that led to the Badgers firing long-time coach Mike Eaves. Michigan State hasn't turned things around under coach Tom Anastos and Penn State is still in its infancy.
Notre Dame, on the other hand, thrived in the much more competitive Hockey East field and with some of its best talents being sophomores (Bruins pick Anders Bjork, Sabres goalie prospect Cal Petersen), the Irish will be continue to be solid in the coming years.
Now the question becomes one of dominoes.
The Big Ten now has seven hockey programs and an even eight would make a lot more sense. Enter Arizona State, the first-year Division 1 independent looking for a prom date – and finding a lot of suitors. The Sun Devils seem like a natural fit for me, since the Pac-12 school has that old-school Rose Bowl link to the Big Ten in football.
Clearly the Big Ten wants to increase its national presence in hockey by adding household name Notre Dame (though how ND's TV deal with NBC jives with cable's Big Ten network is a question) and Arizona State would bolster that further.
Plus, the Sun Devils themselves need to build a fan base and all the Big Ten programs are "name schools" that locals would know. Heck, given the size of Arizona's retirement community, a lot of them may have gone to those schools.
And let's face it: The Sun Devils are going to struggle in their first few seasons – it's only natural. Already having Notre Dame buttresses the Big Ten, which can't afford to have too many more years of one team in the national tournament.
In the meantime, Hockey East will be fine. Eleven is a bit of a wonky number for a conference, but it's not bad. Last year's national championship was an all-conference final between Providence College and Boston University, while many of the NCAA's best NHL prospects come from Hockey East: the BU Terriers have at least five players/recruits who will go in the first round of the draft this summer in freshman Charlie McAvoy and commits Clayton Keller, Chad Krys, Dante Fabbro and Kieffer Bellows.
Will another school step in to make 12? That's another big question that could have ramifications for other conferences and there are already musings about Quinnipiac jumping from the ECAC. Whatever happens, change is the only constant in college hockey – and it's pretty fun right now.