When I first offered up to write this series, I figured this would be a good post to write. As I've said time and time again, college hockey is a bit of a niche sport. There are a number of differences from the majority of the other sports, as the teams involved and their respective conferences deviate quite a bit from the norm. The creation of the Big Ten Hockey Conference starting next season is the first "major" conference to come to college hockey. Unfortunately, as I realized that it would be best to write for the future, I remembered that the B1G conference is creating a giant shift in the college hockey world. So, I'll do my best to not confuse you as we walk through the conference landscape of NCAA D1 men's hockey. (I've also tried to add links to some of the schools that may never have crossed your plate before.)
The Unchanged Conferences:
Atlantic Hockey Association (AHA) - Formed in 1997, the AHA is comprised of 11 schools in the northeast and Air Force (hey, everybody needs a home). Some of these teams are familiar, or at least have shown up on Penn State's schedule for this season: Air Force, Army, American International, Connecticut (who's jumping ship in 2014), Holy Cross, Mercyhurst, RIT, Robert Morris, Sacred Heart, Niagara, Canisius, and Bentley. Overall, it's a decent-if-lesser conference in college hockey. Air Force and RIT have had the more stand-out runs in recent years, while teams like AIC, Bentley and Sacred Heart have less-than-stellar track records.
Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC) - Formed in 1962, ECAC Hockey has some of the more storied names in college hockey history. Perhaps most notably, the ECAC contains the Ivies - Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. Filling out the other six teams are Clarkson, Colgate, Quinnipiac, RPI, St. Lawrence, and Union. While they haven't had the championship success of years past, the greater part of the conference continues to have teams that are tough teams each year. Along with Union's run to the Frozen Four last season, the conference currently has 7 teams ranked in the top 20 (technically, top 21 as Colgate and Harvard are tied in 20th).
Hockey East Association - This is THE conference in the northeast. Boston College and Boston University lead the way, each boasting 5 NCAA championships, while the University of Maine has 2 of their own. They fill out the conference with quality teams in UMass, UMass-Lowell, Merrimack, New Hampshire, Northeastern, Providence, and Vermont. While the conference currently sits at 10 teams, they are making the move to 12 over the coming years, as they will add Notre Dame (2013) and UConn (2014) to fill out the conference.
The Updated and Brand New Conferences:
Big Ten Hockey Conference - With the addition of Penn State, the Big Ten decided to pull their members together to create their own hockey conference. Penn State made 6 teams for the B1G at the NCAA DI level, and a conference with 6 teams gets an autobid into the national tournament each year. Joining Penn State are a who's-who of college hockey and Ohio State. Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Minnesota have a combined 23 national championships between them. However, the creation of the Big Ten Hockey Conference drew a lot of ire, as many of these schools play smaller, in-state schools as part of their current conferences, breaking many old rivalries (and steady revenue streams for the small teams).
National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) - Thanks to the BTHC, two existing conferences got rocked. The WCHA lost Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the CCHA lost the Michigans and Ohio State. The remaining schools - a number of which are smaller schools with a rich hockey history - feared their programs would take a big financial hit, possibly leading to the end of their NCAA D1 program. So a number of the schools banded together and created a new conference - the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. The eight teams that will make up the new NCHC include Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota, St. Could State (these 6 are jumping from the WCHA), Miami (OH), and Western Michigan (CCHA jumpers). As I said earlier, there is a lot of talent and history here, covering 17 championships between the 8 teams. Right now, there are 6 teams ranked in the top 20. They will certainly be the SEC (NoDak certainly has the smugness down) to the BTHC.
Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) - With teams bailing out of conferences left and right, the WCHA ended up being the odds-and-ends conference out of all the mix-up. I won't go into who is leaving, rather I'll focus on the mash-up of the WCHA and the CCHA teams that will be making up the new WCHA. And really, this could be called the conference of hockey-centric schools (because you've probably never heard of most of these schools otherwise). The updated conference includes Alaska-Anchorage (probably most famous for this), Alaska-Fairbanks, Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State-Mankato, and Northern Michigan. Just because you haven't heard of these schools doesn't mean there's not some history of success. Lake Superior State and Michigan Tech both boast 3 championships each, while Bowling Green and Northern Michigan both add 1 of their own. There's a bit of ebb and flow with the success of these teams, but I'm sure I'm not alone in hoping that these schools can continue to find success (on the ice and financially) to remain strong members of the NCAA D1 landscape.
Alabama-Huntsville - The lone Independent of the NCAA. Unfortunately, they're in a tough position - they're not really near anybody, the lack of a conference all but kills their post-season hopes, and the program was killed and revived over the course of 6 weeks last year. They're currently pushing to jump into the WCHA, and as a team that used to play Penn State during our club hockey days, I am a full supporter of the Chargers and hope they find a home.
How about a nifty table to make condense all this into summary form, eh?
|Atlantic Hockey Association (AHA)||AHOnline||• Air Force
• American Int’l
|• Holy Cross
• Robert Morris
• Sacred Heart
|Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC)||ECAC Hockey||• Brown
• Rensselaer (RPI)
• St. Lawrence
|Hockey East Association||HockeyEastOnline||• Boston College
• Boston University
|• New Hampshire
• Notre Dame
• **(UConn, 2014)
|Big Ten Hockey Conference (BTHC)||BigTen.org
(no ice hockey specific site as of yet)
| • Michigan
• Michigan State
• Ohio State
• Penn State
|National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC)||NCHCHockey||• Colorado College
• Miami (OH)
• North Dakota
• St. Cloud State
• Western Michigan
|Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA)||WCHA.com||• Alaska-Anchorage
• Bemidji State
• Bowling Green
• Ferris State
|• Lake Superior State
• Michigan Tech
• Minnesota State - Mankato
• Northern Michigan
|Independent||UAH Hockey||• Alabama-Huntsville (for now)