June 14 - Big Ten Hockey
Courtesy Motor City Sports Magazine
Once every season four of the nation’s premier programs get together for the College Hockey
Showcase. For Big Ten sports fans, this is utopia as far as college hockey goes.
State schools Michigan and Michigan State join their Big Ten brethren Wisconsin and Minnesota for
some of the best collegiate level hockey the country has to offer. Avid hockey fans revel in these rivalry-
However, these contests are the exception and not the rule. The casual observer fails to notice that
these are four of only five Big Ten schools that offer hockey – Ohio State is the other. The real kicker is
that these universities don’t even compete together in the same conference. The Michigan schools
join Ohio State in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA), while Wisconsin and Minnesota
toil in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA). A Big Ten champion isn’t crowned
because it doesn’t even exist. There is no such thing as Big Ten hockey.
This is where the College Hockey Showcase skates into the picture. The event is not a tournament
designed to determine an individual champion. The Showcase stays true to its moniker. It simply
displays the best talent the Midwest has to offer while maintaining Big Ten rivalries.
After every Thanksgiving in November, the Wolverines and the Spartans take on the Badgers and the
Gophers for a weekend full of hockey. The individual schools take turns hosting the event every other
year. This particular year Michigan and Michigan State have decided to arrange an interconference
game in Ann Arbor just three days before their tough road trip west of Lake Michigan.
Despite being ranked sixth in the country at the time, Michigan State goaltender Jeff Lerg, in self-
depricating style, says of his team’s schedule, “It’s probably the toughest week anyone is going to
see in college hockey. We haven’t shown too much on the road, and we’ve got three tough road
games coming up. Minnesota is known for its high-flying, high-scoring offense and Wisconsin is
more defensive, so it will be tough. Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin all in their buildings is a
Of course, Lerg isn’t kidding. Just ask two-sport Spartan star Matt Trannon if he’d like to play three
straight Big Ten road games in either football or basketball and he’ll give the same answer.
The Spartan hockey team would go 0-3 on the week, in effect, proving Lerg’s point.
While the athletes may not enjoy three straight road games in less than a week’s time, apparently
fans do. So says Andrew Abel of Ann Arbor while taking in the Wolverine and Badger clash at
Wisconsin’s Kohl Center. “It’s a great thing to always look forward to every Thanksgiving weekend.
These are a couple of the better schools in the country,” says Abel motioning to the ice while sitting
just rows behind the Michigan bench.
This is the first time in ten years that Abel has made the road trip outside of the state borders, but he
points out, “Every other year when the teams are in Michigan, we go to the games.”
Abel is at this game with his wife, a Michigan alum, and is heading to Minnesota the following day. “It’
s great to see the facilities around the Big Ten,” says Abel.
Indeed, the facilities are what make this road trip so great. To see a collegiate hockey game in the
10,000 seat Mariucci Arena in Minnesota or the 15,000 plus capacity in Wisconsin is something to
behold. And that could be the key to the possible creation of a Big Ten conference for hockey. If
Wisconsin and Minnesota have big, revenue-generating arenas for hockey, why can’t the Michigan
schools? Yost Arena in Ann Arbor and Munn Ice Arena in East Lansing hold considerably less.
Perhaps if they host their Big Ten rivals more than once every other year, they could.
Then again, maybe there’s more to the story than that. “They could do it now,” says former Wisconsin
coach Jeff Sauer, who just so happens to be the all-time winningest coach in the history of the WCHA.
“It’s not that they don’t have the means to do it.” Known as the dean of WCHA coaches, when Sauer
talks, people listen. Also a former head coach at Colorado College, he’s not just spewing some
hockey hearsay. He knows what he’s talking about.
“What more do you want here?” asks Sauer pointing to the raucous Kohl Center crowd. “You’ve got 14
or 15,000 people every night whether they play Michigan Tech or Michigan.”
So could Michigan draw some 10,000 spectators for a game against Lake Superior State? According
to Sauer, they could at least have the arena to accommodate them.
Maybe that’s who Michigan should be playing, though. Maybe they should be playing the Lake
Superior States and the Western Michigans of the college hockey landscape.
“I’ve always been a proponent that you’ve got to protect college hockey,” says Sauer.
And that means protecting the little guys – the Ferris States of the world. In essence, that’s what
college hockey is made up of. The little guys. Sure, there are a handful of Big Ten teams and the
occasional big school like Boston College. But for the most part, college hockey is made up of
schools like Bowling Green and Northern Michigan, little colleges with Division I hockey.
Those in the know realize that the organization of a Big Ten conference for hockey may not be what’s
best for college hockey as a whole. “It would be the haves versus the have nots,” says Rob Howells
before Michigan State is about to take on Wisconsin. The Howells, after all, are hockey people.
Howells and his family have just traveled all the way from Mound, Minnesota to watch his son, Tyler,
play for the Spartans.
Commenting on the possibility of Big Ten hockey, Howells says, “I think because of the number of
teams, it wouldn’t benefit all of college hockey.”
“If you form a Big Ten conference, you leave all of these other teams out in the cold,” says Sauer
speaking on behalf of all the other teams in Division I. “Some of them could drop hockey and drop
below the 59 team mark (in Division I of the NCAA). Right now we’ve got 16 teams in the NCAA
tournament. The way it works is proportional. If you lose five or six teams, you may lose 16 teams and
go back to 12 (for the NCAA tournament).
“Consequently, you might have Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Ohio State over here
beating each other up every night,” says Sauer hypothetically speaking of a Big Ten conference. “And
maybe you’ll only get two teams in the NCAA tournament.”
Sauer succinctly says, “If the Big Ten started a hockey conference, it would be the death of DI college
But what’s good for college hockey isn’t necessarily what’s good for the individual Big Ten Schools
interested in maintaining tradition. Moments after his Wolverines beat the Badgers, veteran Michigan
coach Red Berenson says, “It’s not a current rivalry, but it’s a traditional rivalry.”
So would he like to see Big Ten schools like Wisconsin more often?
“Yeah, obviously,” says Berenson. “Right now we play them home and home every two years, but
there’s just no room on the schedule. But we’d definitely be interested in that.”
Berenson’s counterpart at Michigan State, Rick Comley, generally echoes Berenson’s comments
when he says, “We have so many (CCHA) conference games that I don’t know how you’d ever do it.”
Reminiscing on the previous day’s affairs while looking at the rafters of Mariucci Arena, Comley says,
“The kids, while at Minnesota, were looking at a Big Ten banner saying, ‘How would somebody win
the Big Ten?’ But I don’t know how you’d do it.”
Well, between 1959 and 1981 the teams did compete for a Big Ten championship. In the early years,
they played a tournament format, and later on their overall record among Big Ten teams determined
“They could definitely go back to doing the same thing,” proposes Sauer.
And he’s right. They could. Each of the current five teams would definitely have to make some
sacrifices, but it could work. The ability to have any flexibility in determining a team’s non-conference
schedule would suffer, but there would be positives. Each team would benefit by playing superior
competition throughout the regular season.
There was one major difference back when they used to determine a Big Ten champion decades
ago. Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Minnesota were all still members of the WCHA.
Essentially, they were members of two conferences at the same time.
Then in 1981 the two Michigan institutions fled the WCHA to join the CCHA.
“Michigan and Michigan State wanted to go their separate ways and play more of a bus league
schedule,” says Michigan hockey beat reporter Antoine Pitts of the Ann Arbor News.
So what if another school from the Big Ten added hockey? Would there be renewed interest in the
development of a Big Ten conference for the sport on ice? It may not be as far-fetched an idea as
many people think.
All the schools in the Big Ten that don’t have hockey as an NCAA sanctioned sport have hockey at the
club level. They compete in a league called the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA),
which organizes university club teams throughout the country.
Penn State just so happens to have one of the nation’s best club teams. They have won the ACHA
Division I national championship five times and have been runner-up six times in only 16 years of
ACHA existence. They even had ice hockey as a varsity sport back in the 1940s.
Scott Balboni, head coach of the Penn State club team, says in an e-mail, “Our level is very
competitive with the lower level DI NCAA programs.”
Balboni further explains, “We have five coaches, a strength coach, a team nutritionist, a team
psychologist, three on-staff doctors, and academic support of 11 professors. We have a Nike
sponsorship, a rink on campus that we sell out for every game, as well as our own TV and radio
shows on campus.
“Obviously I would love to see the program go to the NCAA level. I think this area and school could
become very competitive in a short amount of time.”
In order to start a Big Ten conference, “I think you have to have more than five (teams),” says Pitts. “I
think you have to have six. That would give you enough games.”
Penn State could logically be that sixth team. Even Illinois has a dominant club program. They won
the ACHA national championship back in 2005.
Perhaps there is a missing puzzle piece in this whole story. “One key is Notre Dame,” says Sauer.
“They could be another team in the Big Ten conference.
“Michigan forced Notre Dame to leave the WCHA and go to the CCHA because of football. They said,
‘If you don’t come with us to the CCHA in hockey, we won’t play you in football.’”
As recently as 1999 Notre Dame seriously considered joining the Big Ten for all sports and seemed
to be on the verge of doing so.
The repercussions would be far reaching had it been done. Big Ten basketball would be more
competitive, Big Ten football could add a conference championship game, and more fans would be
clamoring for Big Ten hockey.
Imagine the possibilities.