Emotions in Minnesota are high after the Gophers’ controversial overtime loss to Notre Dame in the Big Ten semifinals on Saturday, but for better or worse we’re stuck with this conference. With that in mind, Randy Johnson and Megan Ryan examine how the Big Ten could improve itself, especially with Minnesota in mind.

Randy: In the low-hanging fruit department, many would say the best way for the Big Ten to improve is disappear. That’s not going to happen. And not calling phantom penalties in an overtime playoff game is another popular suggestion. But enough of that. Here’s one way I think the Big Ten could improve: Work with the NCHC to create a Big Ten-NCHC Challenge. The Big Ten does this successfully with the Big Ten-ACC Challenge in basketball, and creating such an event with hockey would at least pay tribute to old rivalries. There would be scheduling challenges, of course, but if they can be worked out, dedicating a weekend to Big Ten-NCHC could be popular. It would offer matchups of good teams. Last year, the Big Ten placed three squads in the Frozen Four, while the NCHC's Minnesota Duluth won the national championship. The format could be a single series between seven Big Ten teams and seven of the eight NCHC squads, or there could be travel partners with different opponents each night, such as Gophers vs. St. Cloud State and Wisconsin vs. Minnesota Duluth on a Friday, then swapping opponents on a Saturday. Michigan or Michigan State vs. Western Michigan, and Ohio State vs. Miami (Ohio) would be a nod to the old CCHA, too. The more often that teams from the old WCHA can face each other, the better in my book.

Megan: I like that idea a lot. Any way to revive those rivalries and make them feel like something’s still at stake. Obviously, those come back around in nonconference play (which the Gophers learned this year can make or break you), but sometimes when they happen early in the season, it’s tough for fans to get amped. (Also, I know the North Star College Cup had its issues, but I, personally, would like to see that come back as well, though next season’s Mariucci Classic is essentially that.) My take is, the only way to really make the Big Ten catch on is good ol’ public relations. Can the conference do better of marketing itself? Can it play up rivalries like the Gophers and Michigan better? Can it promote its players better so if fans aren’t attracted to the matchups, they’re at least invested in some of the guys? Is there a way to nod to the past to satisfy that nostalgia? Like with your Big Ten-NCHC challenge idea, what if throwback jerseys were part of that? I’m sure this sounds trivial, but sometimes a little creativity can do wonders.

Randy: I’m all for the throwbacks when used sparingly. It’s a nice touch, and fans seem to love them. As for the Big Ten improving marketing and public relations, you’re spot-on. And this might sound odd, but when it comes to hockey, the Big Ten would do well to be less Big Ten-ish. By that I mean that college hockey is a regional sport, and that’s part of its appeal. Let’s celebrate the regional aspect of it by even emphasizing West vs. East among Big Ten teams. Minnesotans are provincial with their hockey, and they haven’t warmed to a one-size-fits-all Big Ten banner. And for the love of Mike, the Big Ten – and NCAA for that matter -- must stop referring to the sport as “ice hockey.’’ I know it’s done to avoid confusion with field hockey, but in Minnesota the “ice’’ is assumed. It’s just hockey.

Megan: As someone who ironically calls hockey “ice soccer” sometimes just to enrage people, I can’t relate to that last part. But I do think you’re on to something there with the rest of it. The Big Ten is a great, historic conference – just not in hockey. I think maybe applying the old ways of doing things that have worked for other sports won’t fly in this realm. There’s a reason why hockey is referred to as one of the “niche” sports. It’s got its own way of doing things, and those are hard for old fans to let go of and new fans to grab on to. But is there a happy media between those two? Who’s to say. (It’s you, the Big Ten, you’re to say.)

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