The Sports Center

Minnesota State’s NCHC realignment goals noble, but noble is not what drives realignment

Joining is a lot like a high school lunch table.

Author’s Note: Last week I published a column titled “The Offseason News You May Have Missed, Ranked By Awkwardness” in which the most awkward piece of news was Minnesota State sending a letter to join the NCHC. In it I mentioned that a paragraph would not do it justice. That was true. Instead, I wrote an entire column on the awkwardness of an ongoing situation.

If anything, it’s refreshing for once to see realignment talk comprised with noble goals.

Upturning the quiet part of college hockey’s offseason, Minnesota State’s awkward request to join the NCHC, coincidentally being made public last month on the five year anniversary of the conference being formed in 2011, from the WCHA is the latest in an ongoing shuffle.

Presented in a public light thanks to open request brings up awkwardness from all sides, showcasing some truths that may be better left unsaid.

For one, to do so points out the team’s high mark. The Mavericks did its homework early, sending a letter in mid-May before one was needed outlining why it would fit in with the eight-team conference.

The team found success. In the five years since the NCHC was formed without a glance in the direction of Mankato, Minnesota State’s on-ice brand as a hockey contender has grown under the tutelage of Mike Hastings. Victories, trophies, video boards at Verizon Wireless Center and prestige have come the Mavericks’ way.

Three of the Mavericks’ four D1 NCAA Tournament appearances have come in Hasting’s four years, including the #1 overall seed in 2015. Both of its conference regular season and tournament banners come during the “new” WCHA stretch too, one where it led the conference in attendance.

Minnesota State certainly has done some growing since its days as a young D1 program among big name powers. It’s no longer the scrawny, “four points or bust” Mavericks old opponents remember. It’s a new St. Cloud State (who outdrew its in-state neighbor by 500 this year). When the team missed the NCAA Tournament this year it was a major disappointment.

Minnesota State believes it has the on and off-ice investments to compete with NCHC teams, many of whom left the WCHA to get more off the ice. The school also has timing on its side.

Earlier this year Notre Dame came back to the Midwest, joining the Big Ten and placing it at an odd number of schools. New kid on the block Arizona State remains out there without a conference home. Several others yearn to move into better positions with a landscape that continues to have the fluidity of seats at a high school lunch table.

In that light, Minnesota State wants to sit next to schools that left it, former kid to rally around Bemidji State, and a couple others for a table across the aisle. Those schools formed a popular kids table. Suddenly that one looks better now that the Mavericks have got off their braces and cleared up the acne.

(Side note: Poor Bemidji State. In a span of six or seven years all the Minnesota/Upper Midwest schools went from bringing the Beavers into the WCHA to ditching the conference party literally one-by-one. Total “Mean Girls” move.)

Their table has a world of old friends who draw well! And offensively pleasing styles ours lacks!

Being at the current WCHA table has its issues, as Minnesota State’s NCHC burn letter pointed out almost too well.

As a conference the WCHA does not shy away from making a splash. Away from the ice many of those overtures have been for naught, however, leaving a group of like-minded schools stretching from Alaska to Alabama to Ohio. All share similarities without any being a massive draw that most conferences have. Minnesota State’s leading 3,753 average attendance was 21st in the nation.

And on the ice the WCHA garnered only an automatic qualifier this year. It occurred at the expense of the Mavericks. Poor strength of schedule in conference and a poor non-conference record knocked Minnesota State off the NCAA Tournament bubble despite co-winning the MacNaughton Cup.

So safe to say it’s awkward this time around between the Mavericks and its conference. Being an automatic qualifier conference could be a one-year thing. Two seasons ago the WCHA nearly got in three teams. Still, compared to the NCHC the gulf between the conferences has widened.

Yet pointing that out to its own group of teams, awkward as it is to do so, points out the perception of being in either conference. Minnesota State nobly believes it should be a smaller fish in a bigger pool – both competitively and financially – than a bigger fish in a smaller one.

The problem is that pointing out the difference gets awkward when you are the only one who does (unlike Bowling Green)  and there is no guarantee the “cool kids” pick you.

Noble as its goals are, realignment is not about nobility.

Realignment and conference expansion gets driven by conference need. Need to expand to a new market for TV purposes? Need a big name to draw in fans? Need to get back to 12 by any means necessary to make money on a championship game, causing every non-Power 5 football team to throw its hat into the ring no matter how ludicrous? (See you Big 12.) Rarely does it go the other way.

There’s a reason Notre Dame, with its national brand value and NBCSN TV deal, was the big draw for conferences during the first round of realignment. (For as much as TV has mattered in college hockey, which regularly draws sub-40K viewers nationally on channels that report.) Connecticut joined Hockey East while Arizona State has been courted out west this time around.

As a Power-5 school with more name value than 95% of college hockey and a year of D1 hockey, the Sun Devils remain attractive to conferences. The WCHA went over the top in proclaiming its interest. The NCHC is open to letting ASU have a seat at the table once caveats (i.e. arena) get solved.

The Sun Devils bring more to the group in spite of its lack of hockey credentials, as sad as that is to schools like Minnesota State that sits in a smaller TV market already overlapped. Forgetting questions of offering cost-of-attendance, the Mavericks likely benefit more from NCHC schools coming into town than the other way around despite being a perennial NCAA team.

Awkward

Not holding one’s own fate makes it awkward for both conferences, the one spurned now publicly and the one which has several teams like it and wouldn’t be a first choice.

Awkward.

One of the best cases for Minnesota State after all does not have to do with its on-ice improvement since the NCHC was formed. It has to do with geography.

Awkward.

Geographically Mankato sits near the exact center of a “national” conference, a drive from four schools. If a school which is a flight away for everyone gets added, maybe having one close balances out financially.

And that’s the most awkward part – aside from being made public and having both school and conference “disappointedly” react – about Minnesota State’s letter. (If anything crossing the Rubicon gives some of the eastern WCHA teams a reason this year to hate on the “think they’re too good for our conference” team whenever the Mavericks come to town. Beats being ignored.)

The Mavericks would be a tag-along, an add-on to the lunch table. Specifically team number ten to keep an even number if the NCHC was going to expand beyond its eight members. Notions of nobility and deserving do not matter. Minnesota State’s public ambition depends solely on ASU.

Sadly no amount of on-ice success likely changes the wait at the table.

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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter — Follow @gopherstate

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