Wayne Gretzky being traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings was heartbreaking for Oilers fans and Canadian hockey fans alike. The move helped grow the game not only on the west coast, but in the sun belt and ultimately the United States as a whole.
Here we are in 2018 and we are only two years removed from the first overall pick, Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs), being an Arizona native. Jakob Chychrun who was also selected in that same first round (Arizona Coyotes) is from Boca Raton, Florida. This is a sport that has long had a stereotype where good ol’ boys from the three M’s (Michigan, Minnesota, Massachusetts) should be the cream of the crop from the United States. That stereotype isn’t untrue. However, the rest of the nation is catching up. From Pennsylvania to California, hockey talent in the States is getting better. The talent pool for hockey is getting better and deeper.
The USHL is an established junior league that feeds players into D1 NCAA hockey and ultimately, the NHL. The USHL will never reach the level that the CHL (The Western Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League) is at. But D1 college programs in the US are putting together teams that can compete with the world’s best.
With this influx of youth talent, there are definitely enough players to go around to facilitate the growth of college hockey’s best conference, the Big Ten. The Big Ten currently has seven teams; Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Ohio State, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Notre Dame. Three of the Frozen Four participants were from the Big Ten (Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame). Based on bigger hockey markets in regard to location of Big Ten universities, there are quite a few teams that could join the Big Ten and make an impact much like Penn State, a relatively young program, has.
Illinois is in a good spot. Illinois was a D1 program once upon a time. The Chicagoland area is producing some solid AAA talent. The Big Ten and the NHL agree that Illinois is a prime candidate for NCAA expansion.
Northwestern benefits from being right in the heart of the Chicagoland area, which could end up being a fertile recruiting ground not only for Illinois and Northwestern, but the rest of the Big Ten as well. Highly-achieving academic schools have a good track record in college hockey. Northwestern could throw together some sick jerseys with their color scheme as well. Furthermore, they could find the alumni money to put together good or great facilities right away.
Maryland benefits from being on the east coast and a short drive away from DC, Philly and the fertile recruiting grounds of New England. Under Armour U has fallen on hard times in basketball and football. Lacrosse is thriving. Hockey could be a sport that benefits from funding and being around some of the best hockey talent on the east coast. Though, recruiting against the Hockey East would be tough.
Much like Maryland, Rutgers sits in a real solid area for recruiting. Prep school hockey in New Jersey has produced NHL superstar James Van Reimsdyk and little brother Trevor. Johnny Geaudreau is another Jersey kid. Johnny Hockey went on to win the Hobey Baker at Boston College and is well on his way to a career as a prolific scorer in the show. Imagine if the Big Ten had a team that could convince these guys to stay home in Jersey?
Current NCAA Programs
Western is one of the best programs in the state of Michigan. They currently reside in the NCHC. A program like Western could bring a lot to the table in the Big Ten. In-state rivals Michigan and Michigan State provide a connection.
Like Western, Miami is currently in the NCHC. Miami was in the old CCHA with Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Notre Dame. Miami has beautiful facilities and brings an elite program despite falling on hard times. The talent is there. Geographically, it makes sense. Historically, I need it.
Arizona State has burst onto the scene. Adidas just hooked the Sun Devils up with some sweet threads and buckets. The Big Ten and PAC 12 have long had a history in football. Talent is rife on the west coast. If the PAC 12 wants to get serious about hockey (and they should) then they would be smart to push the Sun Devils toward the Big Ten at least temporarily. If the PAC 12 gets into the hockey scene like I think they should, this would go a long way toward building a relationship between the two conferences for non-conference scheduling.