The powers that be at the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference stepped up to their makeshift podium, ripped a few layers of Scotch tape off of a banner, and that was that. The birth of a new college hockey league.
I don’t need to get into the rest of the details – Chris Dilks at SB Nation's Western College Hockey Blog handles that marvelously on his own. And I’d be wasting my time to do it, anyway, because the real issue isn’t that the National Collegiate Hockey Conference announced its already underwhelming existence earlier this week.
The real issue is how they made a mockery of college hockey in the process.
Ask anyone in this great land of ours to name one of the past five NCAA Men’s Division I hockey champions and they’ll probably stare blankly at you. Ask anyone who values college athletics – not just as an instance of sport, but as a way for young men and women to learn the rigors of dedication, the value of hard work and the importance of leadership and teamwork as well – and they may stumble a little bit before rattling off the names of schools in the Midwest or Northeast, many of which (Buffalo, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Northwestern) don’t even have programs.
There are currently 59 D-I programs in college hockey. I say "currently" because that number isn’t too likely to hold – the addition of Penn State and perhaps Minnesota State-Moorhead will bolster it, but it’s hard to imagine that the total count won’t drop by the time the Big Ten Hockey Conference and NCHC start in 2013-14.
That is, if they get there at all.
This most high of conferences, you’ll understand, has a name but no commissioner; a roster of powerhouse programs but no supporting players and, perhaps the most poignant image of their status in this social media-crazed day and age, a Twitter handle, but no avatar.
It’s embarrassing enough to form an athletic conference and not have a commissioner. It’s more embarrassing to insinuate that that conference – one without direction or director – is the premier conference in its sport.
It’s also presumptuous. It’s also egotistical – egomaniacal, almost. It’s also just stupid.
The 20-minute press conference which was supposed to unveil a big plan for the league that’s supposed to challenge the Big Ten was spent mostly discussing the historical tradition of the room the meeting was held in, not the historical tradition that the NCHC hopes to create.
Hopes to create, because a ship without a captain just can’t plan to go anywhere.
The unveiling was really little more than a popularity contest for those who didn’t quite make the cut – the second-cutest six girls at the prom, the six linebackers that just missed being on the Homecoming Court – six teams that felt duped banding together to show their unity and how, together, they can definitely manage to be second-best.
It’s a shame, because those teams have been pretty darn good in their day – Colorado College made headlines by beating up on reigning champion Boston College in the opening round of last year’s NCAA Tournament; North Dakota had a good run before falling to Michigan in the Frozen Four; Denver, Minnesota-Duluth and Miami are perennial contenders in their own right, leaving only Nebraska-Omaha as the question mark. UNO’s program has improved markedly over the past few years with Dean Blais at the helm, but isn’t quite on par with the other schools.
There are 17 national titles between the six schools (although 14 of them - seven each - belong to Denver and North Dakota) and a combined 33 Frozen Four appearances. By contrast, the Big Ten’s five existing programs have 23 national titles (Michigan leads the way with nine) and 61 Frozen Four appearances. And just for kicks, Hockey East has 11 titles in 51 Frozen Four showings.
The National Collegiate Hockey Conference, then, is a place for also-rans. Actually, that might be a pretty good conference motto – adverbs like higher, faster, stronger need not apply, these folks will be happy to puff their chest out at passable, capable and maybe on a really good day, above-average.
It’s not a reflection on the programs, each of which needed to do something – namely, affirm that it will continue to face quality competition - to continue to rank high in the Pairwise, but it definitely looks bad on the game, which clearly expected the emergence of Penn State to be the stabilizing force that would both bring hockey to the mid-Atlantic and would ensure the growth and long-term success of the sport at the collegiate level.
So far, it’s doing neither. Chaos abounds as the Western Michigans, Alaska-Fairbanks’s and Lake Superior States look for a conference to call their own.
Don’t even bother asking what members of the Atlantic Hockey Association are doing.
Those East Coast-heavy leagues may do something, but none of them need to. Hockey East will continue to be strong. The ECAC will continue to field a few quality teams that inevitably receive invites to the NCAA Tournament and bow out before the Frozen Four, and the AHA will continue to hope for the next RIT to show up.
The onus has been on the teams west of the Mason-Dixon Line to decide whether they want to sink or swim. And so far, the response has been overwhelmingly neither. Instead, they’ve chosen to push the women and children overboard and save themselves.
As we’re told so many times growing up, it’s not how you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.
However briefly, the founding members of the NCHC forgot about teamwork, forgot about sportsmanship and decided to play the game of one-upsmanship.
It won’t be an easy choice to atone for – in fact, in the coming years, it may well be nearly impossible – but it’s an understandable one. Faced with life or death, the obvious choice for anyone is self-preservation.
But these six schools just chose themselves.