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The Fabled Big Ten Hockey Conference Is Ruffling Feathers

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Did you know that many hockey fans outside of the Big Ten are not happy about the conference’s existence?

Many of our readers are familiar with college football and its intricacies. Mention the South East Conference to any fan outside of SEC fandom, and you will either get a physical eye roll, or if dealing with a polite group, you will get the mental version. Most fans outside of the SEC feel that the league is over-hyped and given many opportunities that other leagues deserve to play in big games.

The Big Ten hockey league has a similar effect on fans of college hockey who support non-B1G teams. The Big Ten has a distinct advantage over every league in college hockey. The large school sizes, and money that comes with it, is one factor. The Big Ten Network and the revenue and national exposure that comes with it is another. The sheer vastness of the footprint of the Big Ten and number of media markets reached is unmatched in college hockey.

Another advantage that the Big Ten has over all other conferences is the ability to propose changes in the rules directly to the NCAA. As an ‘all sports’ league, the Big Ten has that ability under NCAA rules. The rest of the college hockey landscape, 53 out of 60 teams when Notre Dame joins the B1G next season, does not have that power. Teams outside of the B1G must agree among themselves, via thorough discussions and much deliberation, and then pass the proposal on to the NCAA once a consensus is reached.

Bull In A China Shop

That issue came into play in November when the Big Ten made a proposal directly to the NCAA that involved docking years of eligibility for older players that join college hockey past the age of 20. The aim was to encourage players to join their college team at a younger age. The proposal was to take one year of eligibility away from any player that joined college hockey after being out of high school for more than two years. If a player graduated high school and then joined NCAA hockey three years later, that player would only have three years of eligibility. Joining four years out of high school would leave the player with two years of eligibility and so on.

The design was intended to keep the age of college hockey players as similar as possible to other NCAA sports. As it stands now, there are many players who join college hockey at the age of 21, and stay until the age of 25. Tommy Olczyk, who recently completed his redshirt senior season at Penn State, was 25 1/2 years old when he played his final game. A straw poll taken of the coaches outside the Big Ten was against the move with a 49-5 count.

College hockey is similar to college basketball in that certain schools have a better shot at getting the high-end, ‘one and done’ type of players. For hockey, it is much more frequent to see a player who is likely to play just one or two years before going to the NHL, at the age of 18-19, choose a large University. The smaller schools tend to get recruits that are less developed, in hopes that years down the road the prospect will turn into a high-end player.

The difference between hockey and other NCAA sports is the existence of many quality amateur leagues where players can develop without losing NCAA eligibility. The USHL, the top league in the United States for amateur hockey players, is a common stop for NCAA players prior to joining a college hockey team. It allows players time to develop without using NCAA eligibility. As a result, few 18 and 19 year old players are found on NCAA hockey teams. It is essentially a redshirt, as players can commit to an NCAA team and then go to the USHL. There may be a plan as to how long the player will remain in the USHL going in, or it may be open-ended. At times the NCAA team will take the player earlier than planned, or sooner than is best for the player, due to roster shortages.

There has been criticism against the NCAA when a team pushes back the arrival date for a player, delaying their education at the institution as well as their time on the ice. In other instances the additional time to develop can be good for the player. A typical regular-season schedule in college hockey is 35 games. That would mean, if a player played in every game, which is unlikely, the total games played through four years would be 140. Tommy Olczyk, who benefited greatly from additional time to develop, played in nearly 400 games since turning age 17. That includes a stint in the USHL (209), a year on an NCAA club team (31), and four years at Penn State (132).

Olczyk is a rare case, but the Big Ten argued that by having fewer 24 and 25 year-old players, the 18 and 19 year-old players would stand a better chance of joining college hockey. In some cases, we are talking about the same player, who would simply join a year or two earlier. It wouldn’t be a case, every time, of an older player getting bumped out of the league.

The Big Ten pulled the proposal before it could be given consideration, likely due to the outcry from the rest of the college hockey world. The event has galvanized pockets of the hockey community against the new aggressor, the Big Ten. For years the entire group of schools discussed any proposals in length before it was sent to the NCAA, this move blindsided a lot of college hockey purists. The power that small schools have always had in the sport is being challenged.

Is The Big Ten Conference A Golden Goose or the Big Bad Wolf?

Five out of the seven teams including Notre Dame that are members of the Big Ten hockey conference have been division one hockey programs since 1947, the year the league was officially formed. Ohio State joined in 1963, Penn State in 2012. The teams, other than Penn State, are not new to division one college hockey. A power conference, one that has distinct advantages over all other conferences, is a new reality that hockey fans will have to grow to accept.

From 1963-1984, 12 teams joined division one hockey. Since 1984, 17 teams have joined. Since 1996, 13 teams have joined. That’s a pretty consistent rate of a little more than one team joining every two years since 1963. There is reason to believe that the rate will increase in the coming years. The Big Ten has over a half-dozen teams poised to add hockey within the next twenty years, which would make the power it wields even greater.

While the NCAA could simply alter the rule that gives the Big Ten hockey conference power to appeal directly to it, the other advantages would not be waived. The finances, appeal to young high-end recruits, and massive footprint that the Big Ten enjoys will remain.

The positive side for those teams outside of the Big Ten is the money, competition and exposure that NCAA hockey is gaining through the formation of the Big Ten. There are many hockey purists who would prefer the larger schools to stay on the sidelines, leaving the smaller schools more power in the sport. This will not be the case. Almost all of the schools that are poised to join division one hockey in the next twenty years already have D-1 basketball and football teams. And of that hypothetical but reasonably likely twenty schools, 25 percent or more are current Big Ten schools.

Many traditionalist in college hockey have been screaming that the sky is falling for decades. Each tweak of the rules or organization is met with resistance. When the B1G was formed, it took two powerhouse franchises from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), Minnesota and Wisconsin. Three Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) teams joined the Big Ten; Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State. This disappointed many longtime hockey fans from Alaska to the mid-west, who grew used to the rivalries that made the sport enjoyable. This year the Big Ten managed to rile the rest of the NCAA hockey world when it added Notre Dame, out of the esteemed Hockey East.

The creation of the seven-team Big Ten hockey league has forced many other league re-alignments. It has many longtime fans declaring that the end is near. Chicken Little saw danger even when it wasn’t there. Hopefully detractors of the recent changes will come to see that they are unreasonably anxious as well.

The B1G does not look like the other conferences, but that doesn’t mean that there is a problem for NCAA hockey. In the future it is likely that the Big Ten will be seen as the Ugly Duckling: different from the rest but still beautiful in its own natural way.

B1G Is Becoming Synonymous With Anything New In College Hockey

The recent annual NCAA Men’s and Women’s Ice Hockey Rules Committee meeting concluded late last week. Out of the meeting came the recommendation to change the format for overtime to a 4-on-4 style of play instead of the traditional 5-on-5, five minute period. It also allows conferences to try an additional five minute period with each team skating with just three players each. If the game remains tied after the overtime period, the winner will be decided by a shootout. As the Big Ten used instant replay in college football a year prior to its universal adoption nationwide, the B1G used shootouts to determine an outright winner last year, prior to this official change.

The change to a 4-on-4 overtime, which is similar to NHL rules, will be given final approval when the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel meets on July 20.

Soon after the news was announced last week, the outcry began to be heard across traditionalist circles of the college hockey world. One tweet does not represent the opinion of all of college hockey outside the B1G, but to show that this is a ‘thing’, here’s this response to the changes.

It’s not fair to say that the entire hockey community outside of Big Ten country has a negative vibe for the brand, but the negative sentiment is there. There is nothing wrong with being an agitator in the sport of hockey. It’s actually encouraged. There is a place for the enforcer, too. While the Big Ten may not own space inside of the entire college hockey community’s head, it certainly has timeshares from Alaska to Maine.