2010s – Big Ten Hockey Upends Collegiate Landscape
Previous: 2000s – WCHA Dominates
Prior to the 2010 season, College Hockey America dissolved the conference after a decade in existence. At the time, there were only four teams participating. They quickly went from seven teams at the onset of the conference in 1999 to six teams when Army left in 2000 to join what would become Atlantic Hockey. Findlay dropped its hockey program in 2004 but they were replaced immediately by Robert Morris University. Air Force departed for Atlantic Hockey in 2006 followed by Wayne State dropping hockey in 2008. The conference folded when it was determined it couldn’t move forward with four teams. Of these four teams, Robert Morris and Niagara joined Atlantic Hockey, Bemidji State joined their Minnesota brethren in the WCHA, and UAH was left as an independent.
On September 17, 2010, Penn State University alumnus and Buffalo Sabers owner, Terry Pegula, donated $88 million to build a hockey arena for his alma mater and elevate the men’s and women’s hockey teams to varsity status. This single donation created a ripple effect that would send shockwaves throughout college hockey. Within three years, the NCAA Division I men’s hockey world would endure its single largest conference shakeup in its history and the landscape would never be the same.
Penn State opened Division I play as an Independent team in 2012. This marked the sixth Big Ten school to field a Division I men’s hockey program. In what was long-rumored to happen if this situation ever occurred, the Big Ten announced the creation of a Big Ten men’s hockey conference to begin play in 2013. This meant Minnesota and Wisconsin would leave the WCHA while Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State would leave the CCHA. As with most conference realignments, the existing rivalries between long-standing teams would no longer occur on a regular basis.
The loss of Minnesota and Wisconsin would reduce the WCHA from 12 to 10 teams. The conference had previously increased its member total to 12 in 2010 when Bemidji State transferred from Conference Hockey America and the University of Nebraska Omaha (Omaha) transferred from the CCHA. However, this new-look ten-team configuration of the WCHA conference changed yet again before the next season even began. The reason for this was the creation of the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) in 2013.
After the reduction of two existing conferences due to the creation of the Big Ten conference, eight additional Division I hockey teams branched off to form the new NCHC conference. These schools wanted to take conference realignment into their own hands and create a conference based around existing rivalries, tradition and location. With this change, Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota Duluth, Omaha, North Dakota and St. Cloud State University would leave the WCHA while Miami University and Western Michigan University would leave the CCHA. The NCAA announced that the tournament champion of each new conference – Big Ten and NCHC – would receive automatic bids to the NCAA national tournament beginning with the 2013-2014 season.
After the creation of this second new conference, the WCHA would be left with just four teams while the CCHA would be left with six. Several months later, five of the six CCHA teams would leave the conference to join the existing WCHA teams to create a new-look WCHA for the 2013 season. The WCHA would once again reach ten teams when they accepted the invitation from the previously-independent Alabama Huntsville Chargers. The lone CCHA team to not move to the WCHA was Notre Dame. Instead, the team moved to Hockey East. The CCHA was officially disbanded. Just four years later, Notre Dame would switch from Hockey East to the Big Ten to bring the Big Ten team total to seven. Throughout all of this conference upheaval, only two conferences didn’t lose or gain teams: ECAC and Atlantic Hockey.
With the removal of decade-long rivalries and a greater distance between some new division foes, there were growing pains throughout the first several years after realignment. The WCHA tournament, which was previously one of the hottest tickets around just a few years earlier, saw its attendance drop dramatically. The average attendance at the WCHA Final Five in the Spring of 2013 was 17,459 fans per game. Comparatively, the average attendance for the final WCHA tournament games in 2014 – the first year after realignment – was 3,721 fans. In 2017, the WCHA decided to switch to an on-campus tournament where the higher seed hosted the playoff game(s). The Big Ten conference tournament didn’t fare any better. The first Big Ten conference tournament in Spring of 2014 averaged 8,522 fans per game. By 2017, the average attendance had dropped to 3,928 fans per game. The Big Ten followed the WCHA’s lead and switched to an on-campus tournament the following year. Alternatively, the NCHC fared the best. The first four conference tournament championships, dubbed the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, were held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at the Target Center. Once the Big Ten shut down its neutral-site tournament, the NCHC moved across the river to Saint Paul and began hosting the Frozen Faceoff at the Xcel Energy Center in 2018. The two-day totals in Saint Paul for its first two years were more than 20,000 fans. Only two-game tickets were sold each day so the average was more than 10,000 fans each game.
The shift in conferences has been blamed for lower attendance at some of the current Big Ten hockey schools. For instance, Minnesota would routinely sell out their 10,000-seat Mariucci Arena for hockey games with tickets that were notoriously hard to get. It was unthinkable for the arena to not sell out during the first round of the WCHA hockey tournament. Compare that to 2019, when only 1,835 tickets were sold at Mariucci for the opening round playoff game against the Michigan Wolverines. A lot of factors can be blamed for these Gophers’ attendance figures, such as a lower winning percentage in the years after the Big Ten move. But even that, in theory, can be contributed to the Big Ten shift due to recruited players possibly selecting other teams that still play decade-long rivalries. Prior to the new Big Ten hockey conference, Gophers games were almost exclusively scheduled for every Friday and Saturday nights and would air on the same television channel for every game. After the shift, the Big Ten Network was created and aired certain games throughout the season with no set schedule from weekend to weekend.
Of the four teams in the 2018 Frozen Four in Saint Paul, three of these teams represented the Big Ten conference. This was an unexpected feat that showed the hockey community that the conference could contend with all others. However, the lone NCHC representative at the Frozen Four that year – Minnesota Duluth – ignored the law of probability and cast aside all Big Ten teams that weekend to come away with the national trophy. That win was the third championship trophy in a row for an NCHC team. In all, an NCHC team won four straight national championships at the end of the 2010s (North Dakota in 2016, Denver in 2017 against NCHC-rival Minnesota Duluth in an all-NCHC final game, and Minnesota Duluth twice in 2018 and 2019). The NCHC had certainly taken up the mantle as the strongest and most formidable men’s Division I hockey conference by the end of the 2010s.
Throughout the 2010s, the most dominant team was the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs. The team won their first national championship in 2011 when they were the de facto home team at the Frozen Four in Saint Paul. As previously stated, they also appeared in three-straight national championship games from 2017 to 2019, winning the final two years in Saint Paul (again) and Buffalo, respectively. This meant one championship was earned as a member of the WCHA and two as NCHC representatives.
It’s also worth noting that Boston College won national championships in both 2010 and 2012. In addition, Yale claimed its first NCAA Division I national championship in 2013 when they blanked intrastate rivals Quinnipiac University 4-0. They had previously won national championships back in the early 1900s but this was the first time they did so since the NCAA was established. As one of the participants in the first intercollegiate hockey game in the United States in 1896, this was yet another addition to Yale’s storied hockey history.
Within NCAA Division I women’s hockey, Clarkson University made history at the 2014 Women’s Frozen Four in Hamden, Connecticut, when they defeated Minnesota 5-4 and claimed the national championship. This was the first time a team outside the WCHA won the women’s tournament in the 14 years since it began. Clarkson would later win two more championships towards the end of the decade. Throughout the 2010s, Minnesota won four championships, Clarkson won three, Wisconsin won two, and Minnesota Duluth won one.