The Dutchmen of Union College affirmed college hockey’s unique parity when they became the third first-time champions in four seasons after their April upset of the Gophers.
Minnesota Duluth started the trend, claiming its first crown in 2011, and Yale won it all in 2013.
This competitive balance, evermore rare in big-time college sports, could be in jeopardy, however, when the new “Power 5” alignment writes new rules for the nation’s most powerful conferences. Will the Unions and UMDs still be able to topple the Minnesotas and Notre Dames once the already-wide resource gap between big schools and small ones grows wider?
The Power 5 changes will allow the 65 member schools to offer full cost-of-attendance stipends for student-athletes, scholarships that never expire and additional health insurance benefits. Two of college hockey’s eight Power 5 schools that could gain an advantage will be on display Friday and Sunday at Mariucci Arena when the Gophers play host to Notre Dame.
“[The change] could certainly lead to a recruiting advantage and likely would, but I don’t think anyone is necessarily hitting the panic button regarding the changes that are to come,” NCHC Commissioner Josh Fenton said. “We know college hockey has survived because of the niche and regionalized support institutions have given one another. Not many Division III programs can win a national championship at the Division I level. We definitely can have that in our sport.”
For now, the polls show no advantage for well-funded and well-known names. USCHO’s Top 20 includes seven programs that play up from lower NCAA divisions, and only one program — the No. 1 Gophers — from the Big Ten.
While only eight of the 59 Division I hockey programs belong to a Power 5 conference (Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, ACC and Pac-12), 21 of those 59 programs — including D-II UMD and D-III Union — are from NCAA Division II or III athletic departments. Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Boston College complete college hockey’s Power 5 group.
Schools outside the Power 5 conferences are allowed to adopt the same changes if they choose. Fenton expects members of the two-year-old NCHC to consider making their own financial aid improvements to help remain competitive.
First-year WCHA Commissioner Bill Robertson sees this as an opportunity for the conference to grow in size and exposure, even if the big schools scoop up more of the blue-chip recruit market share.
“When they have unlimited resources to provide and have many more influences for the student-athlete to come to the institution, that makes it a challenge because not everyone can do that,” Robertson said.
Big vs. small
Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin and Minnesota State Mankato coach Mike Hastings are monitoring the Power 5 changes. Hastings said recruiting could be like buying a car: Any time you can provide more options than a competitor, it’s going to be more appealing. The coaches are confident their options will be competitive, though. History has shown Sandelin can still win an occasional recruiting battle.
“We have the monsters in college hockey, just like any sport. But our staffs work so hard, and I think you see that in the parity in our game,” Sandelin said. “I just think we’re a unique sport. We’re so different than big-time college football and basketball. … But if comparing dollars to dollars, at the end of it if that’s the most important thing for the player … they probably weren’t going to go [to a smaller school] anyway.”
The big promises of the Power 5 reform are already affecting the way Gophers assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Grant Potulny is attracting future talent. Conversations with recruits and their families now include the promise of a scholarship for life and improved nutrition and health care.
“I think in the last four or five years you’ve seen a little bit of a shift toward maybe treating hockey more like football or basketball,” Potulny said. “Now teams are chartering [flights] and have training table every day and have the new snack bar that’s been approved. Some of those things are going to give teams that have the ability and resources to fund that a little bit of an advantage.”
The growing advantage is not lost on Gophers sophomore forward Justin Kloos. “There is just so much more money involved with a program like this,” he said. “It’s a big gap.”
And thanks to Power 5 change, it could soon get bigger.
“The more we can do for the student-athletes, I think the better it is,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “You could see this coming down the road. But what type of impact it’s going to have a year from now, with extra dollars and all that, I don’t know where that is headed.”