A battle for college hockey’s newest asset was starting to brew within hours of Tuesday’s news that Arizona State would make men’s hockey a varsity sport.
The Sun Devils athletic department will elevate its club team to NCAA Division I status next season with the help of $32 million in private donations.
The westward expansion to Tempe, Ariz., alters the landscape of a sport predominately located in the Midwest and Northeast, and conferences already have been in discussions with Arizona State. ASU hopes to join a conference for the 2017-18 season.
The Western Collegiate Hockey Association, National Collegiate Hockey Conference and the Big Ten are the three college hockey conferences with members west of the Mississippi River — and all have teams in Minnesota.
WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson said he’s been in discussions with Arizona State since midsummer and will continue to pursue its membership. The 10-team conference has the biggest geographical range, with teams stretching from Alaska to Michigan to Alabama.
“We are actively pursuing the opportunity to bring Arizona State into the WCHA and welcome them into our family,” Robertson told the Star Tribune on Tuesday. “It shows a lot of courage, and people that are forward-thinking and know what college hockey can do for a school. … It can open up things like conference tournaments being played in other parts of the country like Tempe or Los Angeles.”
NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton said most of his discussions with Arizona State have been focused on what it takes to operate and finance varsity college hockey. The eight-team conference has the biggest presence in the western United States with two teams and the conference headquarters in Colorado.
“We haven’t had any discussions specifically about adding them,” Fenton said. “I would say that Arizona State would be a great addition for any conference. … It’s well-documented that ASU has a tremendous national brand. … They’ll bring a lot to the table no matter what conference they land in.”
Arizona State could also be welcomed in the Big Ten. Conference Associate Commissioner Jennifer Heppel said the Big Ten would consider expansion outside of its current 14-member institutions for certain sports. John Hopkins, for example, is part of the newly formed six-team Big Ten men’s lacrosse conference.
Arizona State will become the ninth D-I hockey team from a Power 5 conference and the 60th D-I member. Penn State is the most recent institution to add hockey, in 2012. ASU athletic director Ray Anderson said he hopes this starts a domino-effect in the Pac-12 for other institutions to sponsor the sport. They would need six teams to start a hockey conference.