I was more than impressed with the amount and quality of the discourse we had last week when we talked about college hockey expansion and I was hoping that we could get similar results this week if I talked about another potential issue for college hockey that gets brought up a lot: conference realignment. The issue is more complicated than you might think, so forgive me if this is a little disjointed("And another thing..!"), but hopefully we can get some more quality discussion to see what people think.
Now don't get me wrong, the current system we have isn't terrible, but I think it's a question of whether or not the current model that we have is sustainable. Things are great in the CCHA and WCHA, but CHA is falling apart. With Air Force leaving the conference next year, that leaves the CHA with only five teams, which would cost them their NCAA tournament bid, and likely force the conference to dissolve. If that happened, the other conference teams would have to try and catch on somewhere else where they're not really wanted. Alabama-Huntsville would possibly have to drop their program since no one is willing to travel there unless mandated by their conference.
USCHO's Scott Brown wrote an interesting piece outlining the potential problems that lay ahead.
It's really quite a shame. Right after Holy Cross proves that small schools can compete with the college hockey powers and can defeat them, comes an overwhelming message that small schools that aren't entrenched in the old conferences don't have much of a future in college hockey.
There's also an issue of what to do with the remaining ex-CHA teams. Wayne State and Niagara seem like pretty natural fits for the CCHA, while Bemidji seems natural for the WCHA. The only problem is that those conferences don't have room for them and don't want them.
A school like Western Michigan or Ferris State can't be excited about the prospect of a home series against Wayne State, especially if it means getting Michigan and Michigan State at home less often. The same is true for Bemidji.
I think the best possible solution is to start over and redivide the conferences and (here comes the true Democrat in me) mandate non-conference games.
A 14 team CCHA conference makes almost no sense. That's way too big of a conference. You almost have to go to a system where you only play each team twice in a season. That makes things slightly better because you get a balanced schedule, but it also wouldn't be good only playing each team twice in a season.
The same is true in the WCHA. You've already got a pretty ugly schedule with a 10 team league and it only gets worse with 11 teams.
But if you could shuffle all 25 teams together and come out with three conferences, that gives you two 8 team conferences and a 9 team conference. That would allow teams to play each team in their conference enough times, but still have a decent amount of non-conference games to work with. I'll leave it up to other people to determine the best way to draw the lines.
The mandating of non-conference games is a little trickier. Scheduling non-conference games has always been left up to the individual schools. The only problem is that that system gives all the power to the major schools. Big schools can pick and choose who they play and never have to travel anywhere for non-conference games. I understand the reasoning behind that; those schools obviously need those home gates to turn a profit for their program. But other schools would need those teams to visit them, at least occassionally so that they could keep their programs afloat too. I know the last thing the NCAA needs is another level of bureaucracy, but that might be what college hockey needs to keep some of the newer teams from having to fold.