On July 1st, 2014, UConn's hockey teams officially joined Hockey East- one of the best conferences in the country. While the hockey program has not had much success to speak of lately, if our time in Big East basketball (c.1979-2013, The UConn Blog does not recognize the league bearing that name in its current form) has taught us anything, it's that playing against the best gives you the opportunity to become the best.
Today, hockey is clearly on a secondary, or perhaps even tertiary, rung of importance when it comes to the college sports scene; because money makes the world go round and the only things that matter with regards to *relevance* are ratings and revenue. Recent shifts in the landscape of college athletics (re-alignment, autonomy, conference-owned TV networks) have re-enforced this idea.
By the standard we have been led to believe, then, hockey falls behind football, men's and women's basketball, and maybe even baseball in terms of revenue potential, exposure opportunities and thus "importance." But I hate those standards. UConn Hockey will provide a fun night of top-flight sports entertainment for Connecticut residents and proud alumni- that's all that matters.
There are a few reasons why, no matter how *important* hockey is today, building a strong hockey program will benefit the University of Connecticut.
Are we having fun yet?
Hockey is an amazing sport to watch live, and Connecticut fans will have the opportunity to see some of the best teams in college hockey every single year. Someday down the road, the Huskies might actually be one of them. The atmosphere at UConn games should be lively, particularly once an on-campus facility is built. Last year, the school sold 100 season tickets, this year that number is over 1500. Quality competition will draw fans to the seats, especially if the upstart Huskies can pull a few punches against more established programs.
Furthermore, the emergence of regional rivals will make it easy and fun for UConn fans to attend away games. What a novel concept! Unlike football and basketball, hockey will at least give us a chance to re-live the glory of a bygone era where college sports was about what happened on the field...er, playing surface... and not in the boardroom.
The Rise of College Hockey
It is very well-documented that college hockey is becoming a reliable pipeline for the NHL. The current percentage of NHL'ers who played NCAA Hockey is around 30%, which is 11% higher than it was fifteen years ago. Now that college hockey provides a more legitimate shot at the NHL, and also the benefit of a college degree, more and better prospects are choosing that route. A larger talent pool is good for UConn, and also for the national popularity of the sport.
Why are football and basketball the most popular college sports? One reason is because those players are the stars of the immediate future at their sports' respective highest level. Compare that to a college baseball player who is likely to spend a few years in the minor leagues before making their major league debut, or a college soccer player who is unlikely to ever play European futbol.
When the odds of an NCAA hockey player making it to the NHL increase, college hockey should become more popular in NHL markets. As a result ratings, fan interest and revenues will increase as well.
The popularity of college basketball skyrocketed in the 80's and 90's, bringing gazillions to coaches, sponsors, networks, schools, etc. (everyone but the players). While college hockey is not likely to experience rapid national growth, it should see a steady rise in popularity. UConn would benefit from catching that wave.
The Big Ten started a hockey conference in 2013. In doing so, they destroyed the Central Collegiate Hockey Association-- a once proud one-sport conference killed by greed- sound familiar?
Say what you want about the Big Ten, they have proven to be extraordinarily adept at squeezing as much money as possible out of college athletics. No matter what, it's good to be swimming in the same direction as them.
At the very least it means UConn is probably doing something right; at best it means that having a good hockey team might help us get an invite if the re-alignment wheel spins again. One can hope. The list of schools that play football, basketball and hockey at the highest level are Boston College, Notre Dame, a handful of Big Ten schools and now UConn.
I'm not saying that becoming good at hockey will get us into the Big Ten. I'm just complimenting the athletic administration on creating this opportunity and noticing that other successful programs are moving in the same direction.
The American Northeast
For a number of reasons schools in New England + New York are not really set up for success in football. Football is religion in the South and in Midwestern states such as Oklahoma and Texas. Additionally, the weather conditions down there allow football players to practice year-round. We also have way more pro sports going on than down south.
In hockey, our own home state has produced a staggering number of college and NHL stars, and many Connecticut high schools are among the top programs in the area. New England in general is a great breeding ground for hockey players, so the location disadvantage which plagues us in football will actually be an advantage in hockey.
We can become very competitive, quickly
In college football, or even basketball, movement up the ranks happens at a glacial pace. What UConn did in basketball is nothing short of tremendous and runs very counter to how any program has ever become successful in the major sports.
Anyway, in hockey teams are able to move up fairly quickly. One of the best and most recent examples being in our own state with Quinnipiac (who I am soooo down to start hating). They joined Division 1 hockey in 1998, and play in the ECAC, along with the Ivies, Union and a few other schools. In the 2012-13 season they found themselves ranked #1 in the country at one point and made it all the way to the Frozen Four National Championship, losing to Yale.
At UConn, Mike Cavanaugh's first season went very well, surprising many with their third-place regular season finish in Atlantic Hockey. Recruiting has picked up dramatically, with the addition of NHL prospects such as Tage Thompson and David Drake. The coaching staff, which recently added Andrew Raycroft, all have extraordinary pedigrees and are killing it on the recruiting front. Cavanaugh came from Boston College, where he was part of multiple national championship teams. Additionally, our athletic department has far greater resources than much of the competition.
I'm certainly no expert on the sport, but as a fan and alumnus I am very excited for the upcoming UConn Hockey season. The school has set itself up nicely to become a major player in the sport. The players are there (or on their way), the coaching is there, we sit in a talent pool, and we're f-ing UConn. I'll take the under on when we become competitive.