The Big Ten hockey conference and Gophers men’s hockey team enter this season searching for the same thing — an identity.
The Big Ten has nearly 120 years of success in sports such as football and basketball. Now it’s the first major conference to sponsor ice hockey, which on some fronts is a risky move.
The Gophers are one of college hockey’s traditional powers. But they’ve replaced five NHL signees off last season’s NCAA tournament team with eight freshmen.
Uncertainty is relatively uncommon for the Big Ten and the Gophers hockey team, and officials of both are realistic that it might take time to develop their separate identities.
“I don’t know exactly what kind of team we’re going to be this year,” junior forward Travis Boyd said. “We got a lot of new players and a lot of new guys that need to fill roles that we lost last year. So I think it’s still a work in progress.”
Jennifer Heppel, Big Ten associate commissioner, has a similar view on the conference’s new endeavor. She said the league’s work began two-plus years ago asking the most basic question: “How we do this?”
Now the Big Ten is focused on how to become the face of college hockey, although the league has yet to play a game.
Building the brand
The conference’s inaugural media day last month in St. Paul looked more like a playoff gathering than a preseason introduction. The scene matched that of an NCAA hockey tournament, Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said.
“Cameras laden across the back. The room was full. There was good energy,” Eaves said. “I thought that was really, really exciting.”
Michigan State coach Tom Anastos’ media day schedule included interviews with the Big Ten Network, Fox, ESPN, NBC, a news conference and one-on-one interviews in the concourse of Xcel Energy Center.
Promotion and hype haven’t been a problem for the Big Ten. Since media day’s strong kickoff, TV commercials and national sponsorships have heightened anticipation. Anastos refers to this as the conference’s commitment to succeed.
“Seeing national advertisements of college hockey, who would have ever thunk it?” he said.
The Big Ten Network did. The conference’s TV partner was an integral part of the birth of Big Ten hockey and is intent on being a vital part of its success.
Heppel said Big Ten member schools voiced the importance of college hockey finding a regular TV home, and they got their wish. The Big Ten Network will broadcast 27 games nationally this season and begin a new tradition of “Frozen Fridays.”
Beginning Jan. 10, the network will have eight consecutive weeks of Friday conference doubleheaders. The Gophers will play in six of them.
Many longtime hockey fans have fretted over how the Big Ten will change the college hockey landscape. The storied Western Collegiate Hockey Association was picked apart once Penn State added hockey and the Big Ten had the six schools required to sponsor the sport.
“It’s ambitious,” Big Ten Network president Mark Silverman said. “It’s not going to pay off right away. It’s a longer term, three- to five-year thing. Building the brand of Big Ten hockey will be a gradual project.”
BTN said it’s making an investment in hockey with hopes that it will become a revenue-producing sport. The initial incentive for everyone involved is exposure, Silverman said.
Seniors Curtis Gedig of Ohio State and Mac Bennett of Michigan are convinced the exposure will pay off immediately. Gedig is from Canada and Bennett from the East Coast, both of which broadcast BTN, they say. Each said the national and international exposure will make the Big Ten the destination conference in college hockey.
The Gophers, who lost traditional conference rivals such as North Dakota and Minnesota Duluth with the move, are beginning to accept the new era of college hockey. Senior co-captain Nate Condon said the WCHA was fun, but the Big Ten will produce new rivalries which will make more sense to outsiders.
“It will be more of a national recognized rivalry,” Condon said. “I think people will understand it more from an outsider’s perspective because it is the Big Ten rivals.”
Building the team
Scattered across the desk of Gophers coach Don Lucia are his hypothetical pieces to a puzzle. There are 26 varieties of shapes. Only about a third have found a home in Lucia’s picture of success.
Co-captains Kyle Rau and Condon anchor the center with goaltender Adam Wilcox. Then there is the large void Nick Bjugstad, Erik Haula, Nate Schmidt, Mark Alt and Zach Budish left when they exited early for the pros. Each would have been a senior this year.
Lucia is counting on returners Boyd, Sam Warning, Christian Isackson, Jake Parenteau and Brady Skjei to help fill the void. But it will be the eight freshmen that will have to hold Lucia’s picture together.
“Our freshmen are going to play a pivotal role in our success just because there are so many of them,” Lucia said. “We have to count on them to play some pretty significant roles. And can they make the adjustment quickly?”
Despite the uncertainty, Lucia appears excited. The last time he was in this situation, Bjugstad and Haula were freshmen. Their seasons were up and down, Lucia said, but their growth helped build a pair of NCAA tournament teams the following two years.
This year’s freshmen class is touted as one of the best in the country, led by Hudson Fasching, Taylor Cammarata and Justin Kloos. In Saturday’s exhibition, the freshmen accounted for three goals and three assists. If the newbies can keep this pace, the Gophers might not need a season of growth to get back to the NCAA tournament.
“I don’t really know what the identity of this team is at this point in time. I think we have some skill level,” Lucia said. “Do we have all the ingredients we need to have? I don’t know.”
The same could be said of the Gophers’ new league.