The University of Connecticut is reportedly ready to announce an application to the Hockey East Association for admission in men’s ice hockey, hosting conference officials this week in Hartford. The move paves the road for the Huskies to leave the Atlantic Hockey Association and join Hockey East as the league’s 12th team.
This is a long-rumored move for UConn after they hired the consulting firm of Stafford Sports to evaluate the program. The company was the same firm used by the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (or NCHC) during its review and formative process.
The Huskies to Hockey East is a move that, logically, would make sense. Regionally, UConn would fit the footprint of Hockey East, which is centered mostly in New England with only the incoming-Notre Dame located outside the region. The Huskies’ women’s program competes in the conference, and, as members of the Big East Conference in football, basketball, and baseball, they share memberships and rivalries in other sports with Hockey East institutions.
UConn currently shares conference rivalries with Providence College and Notre Dame in the Big East, a highly-touted rivalry with UMass’s flagship campus in Amherst, and an increasingly-growing board-room rivalry with Boston College. Additionally, they are one of the eastern region’s largest athletic departments, with the deep, financial resources it would take to compete in Hockey East. As a state school, they would also fit with the footprint of colleges like Maine, New Hampshire, UMass, UMass-Lowell, and Vermont.
But there are still questions that UConn will need to answer before they apply for membership or prepare to leave Atlantic Hockey. When four AHA member schools met on the possibility of leaving for the then-crumbling Central Collegiate Hockey Association, they were given an exit fee price tag of $250K from the AHA. Notre Dame is spending approximately $750K to make the move, so it can be assumed the final tally would be close to that number.
For UConn, that number only scratches the surface of what they would need to invest in order to move from the AHA to Hockey East. The Huskies hockey team is the only AHA team to not offer scholarships, so the move would require a sizeable increase in spending. If the university’s athletic department then spends on men’s ice hockey, they will be forced to spend an equal amount on a women’s sport under Title IX rules.
Where the athletic department is committed to spending money in that regard, the issue of the team’s playing facility presents a larger and potentially more complex challenge. The university prefers games to be played on campus, but the Mark Freitas Ice Forum, constructed less than 20 years ago down the street from the majestic Gampel Pavilion, seats only 2,000 fans and would be the smallest men’s arena by a full 1,000 (Merrimack is the next smallest at 3,000). That doesn’t even include the fact that the 2,000 seats doesn’t even fit Hockey East minimum requirements.
The university would most likely prefer to replace the Freitas Forum as part of its fundraising efforts for a new basketball arena. Gampel Pavilion, the current basketball home, seats over 10,000 for basketball, a number that would be culled down if some seats were removed in order to renovate for hockey games. With the school trying to replace the building, however, it would be unlikely they would take this financial jump.
The other option is the preference of Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy, is to move the team to the XL Center in Hartford. The XL Center is currently the home of the AHL’s Connecticut Whale, an affiliate of the New York Rangers. UConn’s campus in Storrs has an interesting relationship with Hartford, given that the basketball teams play selected games in the arena, and the football team’s home stadium at Rentschler Field is in East Hartford. But Hartford is roughly a half hour from Storrs’ campus, and the XL Center is woefully larger than Gampel.
A move of the team to the XL Center may increase interest in replacing the arena, which was considered antiquated when the Hartford Whalers left town in the 1990s. But the arena’s capacity is well over 10,000 people for hockey, somewhat of an issue for a team that has not had a winning season overall since its first two years in Division I (last occurrence: 1999-2000). That also doesn’t take into account that UConn last year averaged 750 fans per game and consistently places in the lower portion of attendance. With just 58 (soon to become 59 with the addition of Penn State) teams in Division I, UConn routinely finishes outside of the top 50.
College hockey is undergoing a massive shift in its culture and alignment, all going into effect in 2013-2014. Penn State will join the ranks as an Independent team entering this upcoming season in 2012-2013 before forming the Big Ten Hockey Conference with Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State in another year. In that same 13-14 season, Denver, Nebraska-Omaha, Minnesota-Duluth, Colorado College, North Dakota, Miami University, St. Cloud University, and Western Michigan will form the NCHC. The remaining CCHA and Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) teams will merge into one league under the WCHA banner. The CCHA will then cease to exist.
The only exception to this is Notre Dame, which will join Hockey East. The move for the Fighting Irish left the league with an odd number of teams at 11, fueling speculation all season long who would become the 12th member. At first, it seemed ECAC members RPI and Quinnipiac were shoo-ins for the league’s consideration before Holy Cross and UConn began taking steps to make the move. Other teams rumored included Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and teams that currently do not offer men’s programs, like Syracuse. Some of those were unfounded, some of those were drifts in the breeze, and others were hard, concrete facts.
If UConn does indeed leave, every team except for the 12 ECAC member schools will be affected in some capacity by college hockey’s realignment, even if it’s just in terms of conference scheduling.