The Big Ten Conference will add a boost of brand-name power and massive national reach to its fledgling hockey conference by welcoming Notre Dame as a single-sport affiliate member after next season.
The three-year-old hockey conference has endured sagging ticket sales and mediocre results and support throughout its infancy. Conference deputy commissioner Brad Traviolia told the Star Tribune on Tuesday that adding the Fighting Irish in 2017 will inaugurate a new era of Big Ten hockey.
“We’re looking at it as a step that will assist our schools and help us become even more competitive nationally,” Traviolia said. “We felt that affiliation membership is a mutually beneficial way to grow Big Ten hockey. We’re going to be better off as a hockey conference for it.”
News of the upcoming marriage comes just before the beginning of the NCAA hockey tournament, in which the Fighting Irish face off against Michigan in the quarterfinals in Cincinnati on Friday. Michigan is the only Big Ten member in the 16-team tournament field, the second year in a row the conference has had only one representative.
The Wolverines beat the Gophers 5-3 last weekend in the Big Ten tournament at Xcel Energy Center to end Minnesota’s season.
Notre Dame will play one more season in the Hockey East Conference, where it landed during massive conference realignment in 2013 when the Big Ten was formed. The program will bring more than 50 years of hockey tradition to the young league that includes eight NCAA tournament appearances, all since 2004, and two Frozen Four appearances.
Notre Dame finished third this season in the 12-team Hockey East standings and was ranked No. 13 in the most recent USCHO poll.
“The competition has been excellent in the Hockey East and in the Big Ten, and that’s where we want to be competing, with the best,” said Tom Nevala, Notre Dame’s senior associate athletic director overseeing men’s hockey. “There is great excitement because we’re renewing the rivalries that we cherish, and it will be great to go to those campuses on a regular basis.”
Notre Dame, a member of the old WCHA with the Gophers from 1971 to ’81, has the top-tier status the Big Ten wants. The Fighting Irish play in the recently built 5,000-seat Compton Family Center and has some of the best facilities in college hockey.
The program has been revived under coach Jeff Jackson, who has built his team with the help of Minnesota talent. Eight Minnesotans are on his roster, including Mario Lucia, the son of Gophers coach Don Lucia. Five players are from Edina.
“I think you’ve certainly put some pretty big brand names and athletic departments together in this mix,” Nevala said. “And it’s a great opportunity for the exposure for the sport nationally with that type of name recognition.”
The Big Ten was formed in 2013 when Penn State’s program reached varsity level. The six-team conference includes the Nittany Lions, Gophers, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State.
The Gophers have won all three Big Ten regular-season championships and one conference tournament title.
Big Ten officials would not comment on the possibility of adding an eighth team in time for the 2017-18 season, although expansion is frequently a topic of discussion in and surrounding conference leadership.
Notre Dame, which was contractually required to give notice of its intentions to leave Hockey East by April 1, will be the Big Ten’s third affiliate member. John Hopkins competes in men’s lacrosse and will join women’s lacrosse next season. Traviolia said the pursuit of affiliates is often a numbers game and helps improve scheduling and conference tournaments.
Big Ten hockey coaches voiced their desire to expand, and former Big Ten deputy commissioner Jennifer Heppel and Traviolia sparked the conversation with Notre Dame.
Nevala said Notre Dame would have been interested in joining the conference from the onset had it been approached.
Three years later, it got the chance.
The players were looped in on the news Tuesday afternoon, and celebrated the same way they did when their seed was unveiled for the NCAA tournament last Sunday.
“There is a great sense of excitement for competing against kids they had played against for many years,” Nevala said. “It is going to be great for the league and a great situation for Notre Dame.”