October 5, 2011

It's official: Hockey East welcomes Notre Dame

By Andrew Merritt

Confirming a move that has been rumored for weeks, Notre Dame announced on Wednesday that it will join Hockey East starting with the 2013-14 season. 

Notre Dame players salute the crowd after losing to Boston College in the 2008 NCAA championship game. (photo: Getty)

Notre Dame players salute the crowd after losing to Boston College in the 2008 NCAA championship game. (photo: Getty)

The move was announced Wednesday afternoon in a press conference held at Notre Dame’s new arena, the Compton Family Ice Arena, with Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna (Arlington, Mass.) and Boston University assistant athletic director Mike Lynch joining Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick and coach Jeff Jackson.

“Today we celebrate a uniquely special event in our conference,” Bertagna said. “I say it’s uniquely special not only in all that Notre Dame is, but also that Notre Dame signals a change in the reach of our conference.”

Lynch was head of a special commission tasked with exploring expansion opportunities for the league. He said the group has had “substantive discussions” over the last few weeks regarding the league’s future.

“This was an opportunity for us to expand our footprint as well,” Lynch said. “That’s one of the things that attracted us to the opportunity with Notre Dame.”

The Irish are the latest domino to fall in a wild and woolly offseason for college hockey, in which the birth of a new conference was announced and seemingly every existing league was either part of, or rumored to be part of, the shuffle.

Notre Dame comes to Hockey East after the newly formed National College Hockey Conference, which will also begin play in 2013-14, opted to keep its roster of teams at eight – North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Nebraska-Omaha, Minnesota-Duluth, Miami, Western Michigan and St. Cloud State.

The end result is the effective dissolution of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, of which the Irish are a member. Notre Dame became the final big chip in a realignment carousel that nearly rivals that of college football as far as its effect on the sport’s landscape, albeit with nowhere near the controversy.

“There were pros and cons to each (option),” Swarbrick said with regard to choosing between the NCHC, Hockey East and going independent like the school’s football team. “But at the end of the day, there was a clear choice.”

Notre Dame’s decision has been debated for weeks leading up to Wednesday’s announcement, and in the heat of the offseason’s realignment frenzy, some questioned the program’s reticence. Swarbrick on Wednesday explained how Notre Dame treated the process.

“We did not want to be an initiator. We worried a lot about the consequences for other programs in the country. College hockey cannot afford to lose programs, as an industry.”

Swarbrick also alluded to the benefit Notre Dame enjoys of having a strong network of alumni and supporters in the Northeast.

The carousel may not be stopped with Notre Dame’s announcement, either. Although there are ways for a conference to maintain a balanced schedule and reasonable playoff structure with 11 teams, it’s obviously not ideal. Several programs have been rumored to be Hockey East’s 12th team, and the leading contenders seem to be RPI and UConn, the latter of which is a league member on the women’s side.

Lynch and Bertagna both said at Wednesday’s press conference that it’s too soon for them to comment on a possible 12th member of Hockey East.

Regardless of how that final puzzle piece works out, Notre Dame’s addition brings some of the biggest changes to Hockey East in the league’s 27-year history. The Irish have a yet-to-be-finalized contract with NBC Sports/Versus, one that Swarbrick said will be “a more robust television contract than any team in the country.”

NBC Sports president of programming John Miller briefly joined the gathering by phone. The network also broadcasts Notre Dame football, and “our relationship with Notre Dame is one of our most imp partnerships,” he said.

The move will also alter the conference’s scheduling structure. Hockey East teams play each other three times each season – not including the non-conference clashes in the Beanpot and holiday tournaments. Beginning in 2013-14, however, they will only play their league foes twice per season, which means more room to schedule non-conference opponents.

“With the ability to play 12 to 14 non-conference games, and hopefully eight to 10 of those at home, it will certainly create a much better environment for our fans, our students and our players,” Jackson said.

Notre Dame finished second in the CCHA last season, and has won the league title in two of the last five years. Jackson won the league’s coach of the year award in each of those years – 2006-07 and 2008-09 – and in 2007-08 the Irish were national runner-up to Boston College.

Adding the Irish brings a high-quality program to Hockey East, but it also creates an unprecedented travel situation for the league. This year, the longest trip is between UMass and Maine at some 314 miles – a single day’s drive. When the Irish come to Orono, or vice versa, however, the traveling team will cover more than 1,000 miles, and will likely take a plane to get there – as would, ostensibly, every other Hockey East program.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.