Thursday, October 6, 2011

Irish Hockey Eastward Bound

After several months spent patiently waiting for an announcment, Fighting Irish Hockey fans were pleasantly rewarded with official news yesterday that Notre Dame will depart the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) in favor of Hockey East starting with the 2013-2014 season.

From the confines of a brand new hockey facility, Compton Family Ice Arena, Irish Athletic's Director Jack Swarbrick said the decision over the newly formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) and Hockey East happened within the past two weeks.

We are excited to be joining Hockey East beginning in the 2013-14 season. Many factors played a role in our decision, but three were of special importance to us. The first two were the critical issues of the student-athlete experience and Notre Dame's fit with the other schools in the conference.
Hockey East presents a collection of schools with similar values and committment to academics, including fellow Catholic universities Boston College and Merrimack. The remaining list of Hockey East members includes Boston University, Maine, Massachussetts, Northeastern, Providence, UMass-Lowell, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Swarbrick also revealed what is widely viewed as the deal breaker between Notre Dame's choice of Hockey East over NCHC: television rights.
But of special importance in this instance, was our goal of giving our hockey program an unprecedented level of national exposure through our expanded partnership with the NBC Sports Group. Athletics at Notre Dame has always served as a platform for promoting the University
Those familiar with the school know that the Irish also have a deal with NBC for broadcasts of Notre Dame Football home games, so the partnership with NBC Sports Group is not completely from left field.

Like it or not, Notre Dame is now going to be on a premier stage in the world of collegiate hockey. As Head Coach Jeff Jackson pointed out, the television deal and new conference will permit the Irish to maximize their exposure.
We are honored and pleased to join Hockey East for the 2013-14 season. The conference is an established league with a great tradition and outstanding programs that share Notre Dame's values. The exposure for our players and team in a major media and NHL market will be second to none. Hockey East's commitment to playing a smaller league schedule will allow us to enhance our home and non-conference schedule with traditional western and Big Ten rivals. This will allow us to bring great games to the Compton Family Ice Arena and create a more diverse, nationally-televised schedule.
The wheels were set in motion in September 2010 when Penn State announced its plans to move from the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) to Division 1. After the 2011-2012 season is finished the Nittany Lions will spend one season as an independent before joining the newly formed Big Ten conference.
Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State announced they would leave the CCHA and, along with Minnesota and Wisconsin who left the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), ultimately join with Penn State as the founding members of the Big Ten hockey conference.

While Notre Dame was interested in maintaining its midwestern presence, there are more compelling reasons why this move will be a boon for Irish hockey.

  1. Competition - The CCHA is no slouch by any means, but the it is safe to say the Irish are joining a far more competitive conference in Hockey East. Its conference members have won five national championships since 1999 and over that same period they have placed 18 teams in the Frozen Four. Sure, Notre Dame faced stiff competition in Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and even Miami (OH), but Hockey East is an entirely different animal. Moreover, as Jackson pointed, the smaller league schedule allows Notre Dame to play more non-conference games (i.e. against defected CCHA members such as Michigan and Michigan State) and home games, which ultimately bring in more revenue for the University. Speaking of money...
  2. Revenue - Football and Men's Basketball and generally referred to as the only 'revenue generating' sports in collegiate athletics. While this is true, it is a sentiment only held in regard for schools that do not field talent hockey teams. Boston College, Michigan, Minnesota and North Dakota are all prime examples of schools that manage to make money off of their hockey programs. The relative profit compared to more high profile American sports such as football and basketball is lower but, nonetheless, still present. Details of Notre Dame's TV deal are yet to be released but it is rumored that all Irish home games will be broadcast on NBC Sports Group (formerly known as Versus).
  3. Recruiting - Over the past decade Notre Dame hockey has risen in relevance in collegiate hockey. From relative obscure as a club sport, the Irish have soared to new heights under Head Coach Jeff Jackson. Since his hiring in 2005, Jackson has led the Irish to their first ever national championship and Frozen Four games. A national title remains elusive for Jackson's Irish squads, but he has managed to take them to events and venues never before seen by Notre Dame's icers. Moreover, he almost singlehandedly brought the Compton Family Ice Arena to life by his insistence that a new arena be built or else he would resign. Now, with national TV exposure and an east coast footprint the Irish will expand upon their fertile recruiting grounds in the midwest.
This move makes sense for all the right reasons for Notre Dame and, quite frankly, Hockey East. Terms of the TV contract have yet to be released but remarks from Jon Miller, president for programming of NBC Sports and Versus, indicated there would be opportunities for other Hockey East programs to be nationally broadcast.

Furthermore, since the league itself agree to a shorter conference schedule prior to Notre Dame's announcement to join it is clear the conference had exposure on its mind. Shorter conference schedules equate to expanded non-conference games against other competitive opponents. The notion of Vermont or Boston College playing against teams like Michigan or Minnesota in the regular season is sure to bring smiles to collegiate hockey fans everywhere.

All in all, it was a momentous day not only for Notre Dame, but also for Hockey East and its members.

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