As someone who grew up on March Madness basketball, I often think about a future in which NCAA hockey is big enough that the Frozen Four field can be expanded. Maybe not a 64-team bracket, but 32 would be very fun, particularly if the tournament featured schools that casual fans could relate to. How far off are we from UCLA or Texas joining the likes of Michigan and Boston College?
Perhaps this seems far-fetched to some hockey fans, but the idea of Arizona State getting a Division 1 team probably wasn’t on anyone’s radar 10 years ago either, and the Sun Devils have already made the national tournament and had a player debut in the NHL (Ottawa Senators goalie Joey Daccord).
More recently, however, I’ve been thinking about the new and intriguing programs in men’s hockey. Long Island University has beaten the odds by putting together a program from scratch in less than a year and the Sharks have wins over Holy Cross, RIT and Army in their debut season. When the news was originally announced, there was a lot of skepticism in the college hockey press – LIU didn’t get a big windfall like Penn State or Arizona State and it didn’t have an established club team to build off. But the administration was committed and the Sharks quickly got a coach in Brett Riley, plus a roster of kids from all over. In transfer goalie Garrett Metcalf, LIU had its first NHL prospect in the Anaheim Ducks draft pick.
Now there is talk that Lindenwood University in the St. Louis suburbs is considering the move to D1 (but for the record, I’ve been told there is still a lot of work to do – this is not a sure thing). Like LIU, Lindenwood already has a women’s D1 team, so they would be going in with some experience. Geographically, the Lions would be a great fit since St. Louis has been riding a wave of good hockey vibes in the past few years thanks to the Blues’ Stanley Cup title and the city hosting the NHL All-Star Game (St. Louis is also slated to host the Frozen Four in 2025).
One new program that is for sure about the enter the fray is the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. The Tommies already have a conference for 2021-22 – they’ll be part of the new CCHA with teams such as Bowling Green and Minnesota State – which is a huge advantage for a new program. The private school, situated in the Twin Cities, is making the jump from D3 to D1 in all of its sports after outgrowing its previous conference affiliation. The women’s hockey team will be joining the WCHA; a huge coup for a new school.
For the St. Thomas men’s team, one of the top priorities is finding a new coach, as longtime bench boss Jeff Boeser is retiring. The school would like to find someone by April, at which point the team’s direction can be determined by that new hire. We’ve seen several different approaches over the years – LIU built from scratch, while Penn State used some members of its club team early on as it transitioned to D1. Interestingly enough, St. Thomas’ athletic director, Phil Esten, had previously worked as the deputy athletic director at Penn State, so he saw those early Nittany Lions seasons.
If Lindenwood ends up joining the ranks of LIU and St. Thomas, another whole roster of kids will get the opportunity to play D1 hockey and that’s a win in and of itself. While there are some programs such as Alabama-Huntsville and the two Alaska schools that have been threatened with oblivion recently, the fact fans rallied around those schools is heartening.
And while the new schools may not have the name recognition to bring in a lot of outside fans to the sport, I actually think about it in a different way. Going back to March Madness, I always loved when new schools made noise. I’m old enough to remember when no one knew who Gonzaga was, and I once lost a March Madness pool because Weber State upset Michigan State in the first round. From Bucknell to Butler to Valparaiso, there always seemed to be a cool storyline to follow in college basketball.
I do think that college hockey would be a no-brainer in places like California, Illinois and Texas – states that have been producing tons of talent but aren’t represented at the D1 level right now – and getting ‘brand names’ like the Bruins, Illini or Longhorns would go a long way in promoting the sport – but I’m loving that new programs are springing up.
Maybe one day in the not-too-distant future, there will be enough teams to have a 32-team national tournament that garners interest across the continent. And maybe then, an OT goal that propels the Sharks or Tommies past a No. 1 seed will get the March Madness treatment on ESPN.