While Big Ten's quiet, hockey possibility persists
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- John Madden stood by his equipment area in the Minnesota Wild dressing room, proudly pondering the possibility of his 11-year-old son someday suiting up for a big-time college hockey team as his dad once did for Michigan.
Madden hoped aloud, however, for one major difference: the experience of playing in the Big Ten.
"I'm a big advocate of it. I think it would be awesome," the NHL veteran said this week. "It'd just be fun. And wow, what a competitive league that would be. That would be the league I'm sure every young kid would want to play in."
These days, it's more than a dream.
Penn State's decision to start playing varsity hockey meets the conference's six-team minimum for sponsoring the sport, potentially lucrative new programming on the conference-controlled Big Ten Network.
The rivalries between Minnesota and Wisconsin and Michigan and Michigan State are long and fierce, and, despite playing in crowded sports markets, those schools have passionate followings and a history of strong ticket sales. Ohio State also has a team, though the Buckeyes have lagged behind the others.
Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, newest member Nebraska, Northwestern and Purdue don't have varsity programs, though they have club teams of varying levels of strength.
In December, an outdoor game at Michigan Stadium between the Wolverines and Spartans produced an attendance figure of 104,173 that set a Guinness World Record.
"I got to play against Wisconsin twice. Beat 'em both times. Never lost to Minnesota, either," Madden said with a smirk. "Those were great games. Those were the ones you looked forward to the most. No offense to the other schools that we were playing against, but the Big Ten is the Big Ten. It's something pretty big."
Big Ten spokesman Scott Chipman said the conference had no comment beyond a September statement that described the conference as "excited" about the launch of Penn State's program.
"This leads to the presumption that there will be a Big Ten Men's Ice Hockey Championship at some point in the future," the conference said then. "A decision of that nature, however, cannot be made without a significant amount of discussion both internally with conference chancellors, presidents, administrators and coaches, and externally with the hockey community as a whole. Whatever we do, we will communicate in a respectful and responsible way as we endeavor to balance all of the unique interests in play."
Only 58 teams play NCAA Division I hockey, and a league of only Big Ten schools would have a major impact on the sport.
One view is it would help better regionalize the sport by forcing realignment. Teams spanning from Alaska to Ohio currently comprise the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, and Air Force is with New England, Pennsylvania and New York schools in the Atlantic Hockey Association.
Another take is that smaller programs, particularly in the CCHA if Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State were to leave, could be crushed by the Big Ten's power. Hockey is an expensive sport, with unique costs such as ice maintenance, extensive equipment and even checked-bag charges for 20-plus players lugging skates, pads and sticks while flying to far-off sites.
Programs like Lake Superior State get a big ticket-sales boost when Michigan comes to town, and the same goes for Minnesota's in-state foes in the WCHA.
Minnesota and Wisconsin are among the 12 teams in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, which added Bemidji State and Nebraska-Omaha this season. WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said the league has not received notification from the Gophers or Badgers of their intent to leave, and he termed talks about Big Ten hockey as merely casual.
The WCHA has had a contingency plan in place for years in case of a Minnesota-Wisconsin departure, including keeping the Gophers and Badgers on the nonconference schedules.
"We've dusted it off and hired some new consultants to help us navigate," McLeod said, adding: "If Minnesota and Wisconsin join the Big Ten conference, we're going to be different. We're not going to be any less."
McLeod said Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has indicated to him that a specific plan could form sometime this spring.
"I guess nobody's going to really know until it happens, but there's a concern there may be a ripple effect in some programs not being around," McLeod said.
Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi declined comment.
"As of right now we are not in a position to speculate as to the potential for a Big Ten hockey conference," spokesman Garry Bowman said. "Any announcements or statements about the league adding hockey as a sponsored sport should be made by the conference office."
Maturi has previously expressed concern about the concept, though, stressing the importance of continuing to play the smaller schools that rely on revenue and exposure from facing teams like Minnesota and Michigan.
Penn State will start playing varsity men's and women's hockey in the 2012-13 season as an independent and begin scheduling Big Ten schools two years later. Athletic director Tim Curley said last week he hopes to hire head coaches by this summer. The Nittany Lions, publicly, are staying noncommittal for now on their ultimate conference preference.
"Right now, there's nothing to report, but there are a lot of discussions going on about what's the right spot to be from a conference perspective," Curley said, adding: "We're kind of the newcomers to the party, so we're just trying to figure out what's best for Penn State, what's best for the Big Ten, what's best overall for college hockey. We want to be a good player in all of those discussions."