Michael Florek: Penn State going Division I spells end of CCHA as a power conference

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By Michael Florek, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 16, 2010

Hello Penn State, goodbye CCHA credibility.

Barring a major plot twist at Penn State’s 11:30 am news conference today, the Nittany Lions will be the 59th team to join Division I hockey. But more important, they will be the sixth Big Ten school in the division, the minimum required for a conference to have an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

With the Big Ten surely salivating over the broadcast potential for its growing cable network and rumors that Indiana is looking into following Penn State’s path, it seems like only a matter of time before the conference is a reality.

So what does this all mean for Michigan?

The program is about to get a lot richer. The Big Ten Network has become the Rich Uncle Pennybags of the college sports world, dangling enough cash out there for Nebraska to turn to the Big Ten in football. Big Ten hockey presents yet another programming opportunity to draw serious revenues for the conference and its member schools.

But the Wolverines may get richer talent-wise as well. At worst, the Big Ten Network will feature a game-of-the-week giving the conference 19 televised regular season games, eight more than the Fox Sports Detroit contract for the upcoming season. And with fewer teams in the conference, Michigan has a higher chance of playing in these games.

While the increased exposure helps out Penn State and college hockey as a whole, a little extra television time won't hurt when recruiting comes around for the Wolverines.

The only con from a Michigan fan’s perspective is that the Wolverines will be playing in the toughest conference in hockey. They would have to play perennial Frozen Four contender Wisconsin, a historical giant likely to regain its stride in Minnesota and arch rival Michigan State two to four times a year depending on the schedule.

Don’t count on Penn State being a bottom feeder either. Northern Michigan was in the national title game four years after the team's inception. And they didn’t have a guy who just sold his company for four billion dollars pumping money into the program, as Penn State does.

While Michigan has a rosy outlook of expansion and there are plenty of pluses for the college hockey landscape (expanding the blueprint, giving incentives for other Big Ten teams to make the jump, more exposure, more money), CCHA teams should be worried.

The Big Ten conference gives the CCHA second-tier status.

By removing possibly the two biggest draws of the conference in Michigan and Michigan State, it opens the door for other teams to move. If there’s one thing the college football realignment has taught us, it’s that more change is better.

Whether Notre Dame’s football team jumps to the Big Ten or not, why not bring them into the conference for hockey? The Irish aren’t going to complain about having their new hockey facility full when Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota come to town at least once a year.

And what stops the WCHA from pulling Miami away, replacing the RedHawks’ road trips to Lake Superior State and Western Michigan with slugfests against North Dakota and Denver?

Even if Michigan and Michigan State games continue out of conference, there isn’t an incentive for either Notre Dame or Miami to stay in the CCHA. And if those teams leave (and to a lesser extent if they stay) the college hockey world becomes stratified.

No program is in danger of folding (except maybe pariah Alabama-Huntsville). There is too much tradition and too many national titles among teams like Lake Superior State and Bowling Green for that to happen. But as more teams come into Division-I hockey (and right now that looks extremely likely) and the talent starts rolling toward programs that have very deep pockets, the smaller schools won't be able to compete.

The only way to survive is by sticking together on a lesser scale. When Michigan takes on Lake Superior State in 2015, it won’t exactly be the Hawks playing the Mighty Ducks pre-Gordon Bombay, but it will be close.

So, as a Michigan fan, rejoice, but start writing your goodbye letter to the CCHA now — before you forget about it.

Florek can be reached at florekmi@umich.edu