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Hockey also reshuffling deck

By John Powers
Globe Staff / October 8, 2011

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Terry Pegula had sold his natural gas company to Royal Dutch Shell for a few billion dollars, more than enough to indulge his hockey hobby. So he bought the Buffalo Sabres for $189 million and gave another $88 million to Penn State so his alma mater could build a new arena and turn its men’s and women’s hockey clubs into varsities. “That was the catalyst that pushed the first domino,’’ says Paul Kelly, executive director of College Hockey, Inc.

What ensued is the biggest upheaval in the history of college hockey with the creation of two new leagues, the extreme makeover of another, and the vaporization of yet another. “It was a seismic shake of the earth,’’ says Boston College coach Jerry York.

Penn State’s upgrade enabled the Big Ten to meet its six-school minimum for a conference championship and lured Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State. That set off a mad scramble during the past seven months that gave birth to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, deleted eight teams from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association while adding five, and wiped out the 11-team Central Collegiate Hockey Association, which has existed for four decades.

The tremors aren’t finished yet. If Hockey East, which this week added Notre Dame as its 11th member, goes to an even dozen, the new addition likely would come from either the ECAC or the Atlantic Hockey Association. “I think there are still a few more moves on the board,’’ reckons Kelly.

While the new alignments appear firm, they won’t take effect until the 2013-14 season. “All of this is happening now, but it’s not immediate,’’ says ECAC commissioner Steve Hagwell. “There still are two years to go.’’

Nothing will change for the season just underway. The CCHA still is firing on all cylinders and has the top two teams (Miami and Notre Dame) in the preseason polls. “During our league meetings everyone has always stated with conviction to let’s make these next two seasons the very best they can possibly be,’’ says commissioner Fred Pletsch. “Everyone wants to continue the momentum.’’

The WCHA, which lost six schools to the NCHC - including reigning national champion Minnesota-Duluth, charter members North Dakota, Denver, and Colorado College, and archrivals Minnesota and Wisconsin to the Big Ten - has added five from the CCHA with WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod vowing to “persevere, soldier on, and continue to do things as we always have - in a first-class manner.’’

The wholesale shuffle has prompted some observers to joke that the new WCHA is the old CCHA and that the new NCHC is the old WCHA. “It looks like we have the same two leagues,’’ muses Boston University coach Jack Parker. “They just renamed them.’’

Either improved or untouched amid the hurly-burly are the three Eastern conferences. The ECAC still has the same 12 schools with no plans to change. “It depends on how the dominoes fall,’’ says Hagwell. “It’s hard to project right now.’’ And Hockey East, which had been open to expansion, landed the one newcomer that everyone wanted in Notre Dame, which brings national cachet, a brand-new rink (the $50 million, 5,000-seat Compton Family Ice Arena), and a television contract with NBC.

“We’re so excited to bring Notre Dame into the league,’’ says York, whose varsity will meet the Irish in the arena’s dedication game Nov. 18. Notre Dame also hosts Northeastern in early December, and BU on New Year’s Eve.

The Irish, who’ve made the Frozen Four twice in the last four seasons, were the last unmoved chess piece and they had the luxury of going anywhere they wanted. The natural route was to head East, where they’ll join fellow Catholic schools BC, Providence, and Merrimack, and mine a rich recruiting area. “There’s a few Irish Catholics in the East,’’ cracked coach Jeff Jackson.

The question is how long Hockey East will stay at 11 teams. “We’re trying to let the paint dry,’’ BU athletic director Mike Lynch said this week. If a strong candidate raises its hand, Hockey East wouldn’t mind growing. “We set the bar kind of high [by admitting Notre Dame],’’ says commissioner Joe Bertagna. “But if that school exists, maybe we get to 12.’’

Should the league expand, Connecticut would appear a natural choice since its women’s team already plays in Hockey East, where fellow New England state schools Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts already are members. But that would require the Huskies, who play in Atlantic Hockey, to make an estimated $2 million commitment, including scholarships, and either expand their 2,000-seat rink or play their bigger games at Hartford’s XL Center.

“We’re monitoring the hockey landscape,’’ says UConn athletic department spokesman Mike Enright. “We know what the financial implications are of going to a major hockey conference. It’s something we have to evaluate as we go.’’

If UConn or another Atlantic team were to leave - Canisius, Mercyhurst, Robert Morris, and Niagara all were approached by the CCHA last summer - commissioner Bob DeGregorio already has a replacement in mind. “I have Air Force and Army,’’ he says. “Who do you think I’m thinking about?’’

But Navy has no plans to change course. “Right now our future is club,’’ says athletic director Chet Gladchuk. “We don’t have any game plan in place to move to varsity. The hockey program right now is in a niche that makes sense for us.’’

Every arrival or departure restarts the game of musical chairs, which has been played at a tarantella tempo since March. “One of my biggest fears when this all happened came to fruition,’’ says DeGregorio. “Instead of everybody sitting back and seeing how it played out, everybody panicked.’’

At least everyone has ended up with a seat. Except, that is, for the one school that didn’t have one to begin with. Alabama-Huntsville, which has been the only Division 1 independent since College Hockey America came apart last year, still has its nose pressed to the glass amid rumors that the college will drop the sport. “The sport will not be eliminated,’’ insists athletic director E.J. Brophy, “and I say not with a capital N.’’

But unless UAH can find a league, its only alternative is to make hockey a club sport again. “Failure to get into a conference is not an option,’’ says Brophy, whose Chargers won only four games last season after qualifying for the NCAA tournament in 2010. Nor is remaining independent and continuing to be their rivals’ convenience date. “The thing that hurts us is what hurts the Alaska schools - geography,’’ acknowledges Brophy.

Alabama-Huntsville is the only Division 1 program south of the Mason-Dixon line, which is why it’s hosting this season’s Frozen Four in Tampa and why it piles up frequent-flyer miles. The Chargers will play three games in four nights over Thanksgiving weekend at Merrimack, UMass-Lowell, and New Hampshire, and will play 17 of their final 21 on the road, including the last eight.

UAH’s dilemma comes at a time when schools will be looking for more nonconference games to fill out their schedules. Instead of the West having one 12-team and one 11-team league, there will now be one nine-team, one eight-team, and one six-team. That’s ideal for Hockey East, which was planning on reducing its present format of 27 conference games. “If you open up all those dates, maybe there’ll be more Big Ten teams coming,’’ says Bertagna.

Or maybe more Hockey East teams traveling. “Some schools can sculpt 14 nonconference games more easily than others,’’ says Bertagna. “It’s about who you can play and where you play them.’’

There’s no template to work from at a time when college hockey is going through its version of capitalism’s “creative destruction.’’ “Terry Pegula and his generous gift - that was the genesis for all of that,’’ says the CCHA’s Pletsch.

If Pegula were a hoops junkie, the Nittany Lions might have been facing off indefinitely against the likes of West Chester, Liberty, and Central Oklahoma. Now they’ll be playing before crazed crowds in Madison and Minneapolis, while Notre Dame goes to Lowell and Miami heads for the Rockies. “It’s a whole new everything now,’’ says Parker.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.