The Hockey East Association will formally accept the University of Connecticut as its 12th member, ending months of speculation and rounding out its realignment for the 2014-2015 season. UConn will depart the Atlantic Hockey Association when college hockey’s changes go through in a year, playing out the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 seasons in lameduck status for its current conference.
It is still unannounced and unclear where UConn will play its home games when Hockey East play opens in two seasons. The Mark Freitas Ice Forum, its current home rink, is ill-suited for HEA requirements and will require renovations. Rumors currently center on the XL Center in Hartford, a city where the Huskies football team currently plays its home games. It is also unconfirmed how much money UConn will need to spend in order to both leave the AHA and join the HEA.
The move will be as of right now the final move of college hockey’s current realignment. Hockey East will expand to 11 teams in 2013-2014 when they admit Notre Dame out of the collapsing Central Collegiate Hockey Association before rounding out at 12 a year later with UConn. Atlantic Hockey, meanwhile, will remain at 12 teams until UConn’s departure. Afterwards, the AHA will become an 11-team move, with no immediate teams joining the conference in the near-future.
Alabama-Huntsville is often cited as a possibility for the AHA to expand back to 12, since the Huskies’ move has been anticipated for quite some time. However, the conference has made no overtures towards the Chargers, and UAH apparently is resting its hopes on the current meetings of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
College hockey’s landscape is being dramatically altered by the addition of Penn State. The move triggered a wave of backroom and political moves culminating with the addition of two new conferences and the dissolution of another. The CCHA is effectively merging into the WCHA with its remnants, after the bulk of both conferences split off to form the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and Big Ten Hockey. Notre Dame, a CCHA member, headed east for Hockey East.
All except for 12 hockey teams will now be affected by the realignment, with every conference except for the ECAC changing in some capacity. The AHA’s position was tenuous at best merely because of its place as a perceived “mid-major.” While UConn’s women’s hockey team competed within Hockey East, the men’s team did not offer athletic scholarships as a member of the AHA. The move means the school will need to make a substantial financial investment, as Hockey East is perceived as the nation’s premier conference with the financial equivalent of full scholarships allowable.
The question remaining about UConn is, of course, about how competitive the team will be. A mid-tier AHA team last season, the Huskies will join a conference that produced four of the last five national champions. Last year, a quarter of the 16-team field came out of the HEA, with a fifth team (Merrimack) barely missing the cut. The AHA, meanwhile, consistently only places its conference champion into the tournament, routinely as a fourth-seed. While it’s clear UConn will get better with the financial investment over time, it’s not a certainty, and the program will need to build much in the way of Merrimack and Providence.