Nov. 28, 2013
Inside Michigan Hockey
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On Nov. 29, when Michigan and Ohio State face off at Yost Ice Arena, Big Ten Conference officials will be on hand for a historic moment between the longtime rival schools.
When the puck drops at 7:22 p.m. EST, it will mark the beginning of Big Ten ice hockey action, a moment four years in the making and the culmination of a process that brought widespread movement in college hockey. The sea change included the creation of two new conferences and the end of another that has existed as one of the sport's best for more than four decades.
"We're excited about the new conference," U-M head coach Red Berenson said. "I know our fans will really welcome this."
So how did we get here?
In September of 2010, Penn State announced the establishment of men's and women's ice hockey programs set to begin competition in the 2012-13 academic year, giving the Big Ten six institutions sponsoring men's ice hockey. Big Ten rules allow for a conference championship when six institutions sponsor a program in any given sport.
Penn State's move, allowed by the largest private gift in the university's history -- $88 million from Terrance M. and Kim Pegula -- kicked off a series of events within the Big Ten that led to another big announcement in March 2011.
The directors of athletics of Big Ten institutions with men's ice hockey unanimously announced their intention to recommend to the Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors the establishment of men's ice hockey as an official conference sport, starting with the 2013-14 season.
With the Council's approval, Big Ten hockey became a reality in the summer of 2011, kicking off a chain of events that included the creation of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, the reformation of the WCHA, Notre Dame's move to Hockey East, and the end of the CCHA, Michigan's home for 32 years.
And finally, after the long goodbye of the last two seasons, the 2013-14 college hockey season has arrived. For Berenson, the arrival of Big Ten hockey brings a mix of emotions.
"The CCHA can be proud of all the team members and all the championships and all the great events they've had; the great players they produced and the great people they produced as student-athletes, not just NHL players," Berenson said.
Yet the Big Ten will undoubtedly lead to greater meaning in rivalries with former WCHA members Wisconsin and Minnesota and the excitement of a new hockey series with Penn State.
"I remember playing at Michigan in the late '50s and thinking, 'What's the big deal with those Big Ten schools?' since we played in the WCHA and Minnesota had a strong program," Berenson said. "Whenever Michigan and Minnesota played you could tell, from the fans, that it was like a Stanley Cup game. I'm hoping that's what we get back with this conference."
Part of the excitement for Michigan players is that the Big Ten signals a move to the big time, as no longer will hockey serve as an outlier among their fellow athletic programs.
"Everyone's going to be good, that's for sure," said Michigan senior captain Mac Bennett. "All of these programs are really, really great programs. They're all pretty historic programs. Even Penn State, they're a great program already."
The association with the Big Ten will also mean more national exposure for the program; 30 of Michigan's 34 games during the regular season will be televised.
Bennett was Michigan's player representative at Big Ten Media Day on Sept. 19 in St. Paul, Minn., where more than 100 reporters were credentialed to cover the conference's first official event. Bennett's morning included interviews with ESPN, Fox Sports and the Big Ten Network, along with an hour of print media/local TV interviews.
For seniors like Bennett, one year in the Big Ten is an exciting coda to a college career. However, for the incoming freshman class, the new conference is viewed in a different context. The Big Ten made Michigan an even more attractive choice in their decision to play college hockey.
"It's very exciting to be here with Big Ten hockey starting up for the first time," said freshman goaltender Zach Nagelvoort. "It's exciting to be a part of the statement that we get to make here at Michigan, about what Big Ten hockey means at U-M."
Berenson believes the impact of Big Ten hockey in recruiting has been evident in some cases.
"I think it has, and it hasn't," Berenson said. "There are certainly players that are up to speed now with what's happening in the Big Ten Conference and what will happen or should happen. There are other players that have no idea.
"But we've seen a lot of players that say they can't wait to play in the Big Ten Conference. They've done their homework, and good for them. I think it's going to be a plus for all the schools in the conference."
A conference four years in the making has arrived, small in membership but large in its impact on college hockey. With six teams playing four conference games against each other, the rivalries in the Big Ten will build naturally, starting appropriately with its very first game -- Michigan vs. Ohio State.
"I think it's so cool because every game is a rivalry game," Bennett said. "Every game will be played on a national stage. They will be televised with big crowds. It will be good for us and good for college hockey."