Spartans Look to Bring in New Era of Hockey with Formation of Big Ten Conference
For many years, hockey has always been the nice guy of intercollegiate athletics. Constantly ignored. Given the cold shoulder by the NCAA. And, to be completely honest, outside of watching a period or two of the Frozen Four, many sports fans don’t even recognize its existence. However, a new era of college hockey looks to mold itself into the national landscape and that hope has taken major strides with the creation of the Big Ten Conference.
After 31 seasons in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, Michigan State will join forces with former CCHA members, Michigan and Ohio State, along with Wisconsin, Minnesota and a recently formed Penn State hockey program for the inaugural year of Big Ten hockey.
With the breath of the new conference comes a booming growth in national exposure for not just the Big Ten, but college hockey in general, as the Big Ten Network and several other networks plan to air at least 70 games involving Big Ten teams this upcoming season. Michigan State head coach Tom Anastos would be one of the first to tell you how significant that exposure is.
“The exposure is substantial. It is substantial where you compare what is going on nationally and we have already heard and seen in our recruiting, people taking notice of that,” said Anastos.
“I thought we used to do a decent job in the CCHA with creating television exposure for our members, but this is taking it to a level never seen before and I think we are just on the cusp on what it will be ultimately.”
As Anastos mentioned, recruiting in the Big Ten is already seen incredible progress, even before its first season has officially kicked off. This year, Michigan State welcomes in six freshmen that all acknowledged the fact that playing on a national stage was a factor in attending Michigan State.
Freshman forward JT Stenglein said, “It was definitely a big part of it. Just wanted to go to a new league and I think it is going to be a good experience. Obviously, they are putting a lot of money and things into it so, I think it will be a really good thing for me and it definitely played a big part in me coming here.”
Added freshman defensemen Chris Knudson, “The Big Ten is obviously an awesome opportunity for everyone to play in it. It’s always been a dream to come to Michigan State so the Big Ten was just the icing on the cake.”
Although it means a lot to recruits to get to play on national television, perhaps no one weighed in the formation of the Big Ten Conference than freshman forward and Sweden import Villiam Haag.
“We don’t have anything like it… [Junior hockey] is not that big in Sweden. Now, we have everything on television and it’s a big crowd. Unfortunately, [my family and friends] have to stream it on the Internet because we don’t have the channel in Sweden, though.”
Haag went on to say, “It feels like being a pro. You see everyday all these NHL players play on television and meet the media. Now I am here, playing for college, still a junior and I got to do this. So, of course this is an exciting thing for me to be a part of.”
While the freshman factored the formation of Big Ten hockey into their college choice, upperclassmen such as MSU Captain Greg Wolfe are excited about the opportunity as well.
“It’s been cool. I mean I went to the Media Day last Wednesday and Thursday and that was a great experience, you know. It kind of put into prospective where Michigan State is going, where the Big Ten is going and it’s really exciting. And I’m honored to be able to call myself the first captain of MSU in the first year of the Big Ten. But, with that being said, I want to be the first captain of MSU in the first year of Big Ten and you know, be a contender and have a chance to play for the trophy,” said Wolfe.
Junior forward Tanner Sorenson thinks the league’s creation will allow fans associate hockey with other Big Ten rivalries that exist in other sports. “It’s kind of like the Big Ten for the football game days. Everyone waits for the Iowas, the Ohio States, the Michigan game. So, I think, as far as us and our fan base, I think everyone is going to be real excited for those,” said Sorenson.
Along with media coverage, Big Ten schools expect in-stadium attendance to increase exponentially as well.
“I do think it will [have an effect on attendance]. I definitely do. I think that is one of the benefits of playing in the Big Ten because, every sport has their core fan, but I also think, in our case I know in spite of us, like last year we had a number of sell-outs. We led our league in attendance,” Anastos said.
Anastos continued to go on and say, “We were a Top 10 team in the country in attendance and so that part is coming back as we hoped it would. And I think this is going to lend to help that because we’re going to continue to have our core fans but we want to introduce more fans to the game. And now, Big Ten rivalries, Big Ten names, Big Ten brands, I think more people will associate with.”
While national exposure and high attendance may lend Big Ten teams the upper hand in recruiting, Coach Anastos thinks the biggest advantage may be the attention Big Ten hockey stands to gain from the NCAA.
“I keep telling people that the Big Ten has a powerful voice in the NCAA structure and in the legislative process and we never had that as a single-sport conference in hockey. It was very difficult to get any issues moved forward throughout the NCAA process. Well, now we have direct vehicle that has a powerful voice at that table and I think that will benefit our sport,” said the third year Spartan coach.
There is a strong argument behind the sentiment that the Big Ten is considered to be the best conference in college hockey from day one. With its six members combining to win 23 national championships, including three from Michigan State and three schools ranked in this year’s preseason Top 10 (Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan), the rigorous schedule of the Big Ten slate will prove to be as daunting as competing in an Ironman competition, which is exactly what the thick of the conference schedule looks to be.
“I always reference, you know, can you imagine, basketball had a tough stretch last year, you know, where they play at Minnesota and then at Ohio State or home with Michigan or whatever. You know, we go to Wisconsin and play two in a row. And then, the next week, we might go to Michigan and play two in a row. And then, the next week somebody comes and plays us and we play two in a row. So, the schedule in itself for hockey is very demanding, particularly with the physicality that goes along with the sport,” said Anastos.
All in all, despite what advantage that looks to be gained by Big Ten teams, Anastos believes the impact the Big Ten can have extends to the entire sport.
“I think, from a sport prospective, number one, the Big Ten is putting substantial resources into Big Ten hockey to make it successful and there’s no doubt in my mind that it will be. And, at the same time, I think that a successful Big Ten hockey league is going to help the sport, really put the sport on a different platform that we could have never done without a big time all-sport conference like the Big Ten,” said Anastos.
The impact the Big Ten conference has on Michigan State, the other Big Ten schools and the rest of college hockey is something that will only be revealed once players get on the ice and start competing. But the fact remains; college hockey is sick of being the nice guy and is ready to make a statement to the world of intercollegiate athletics.