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.