Last week, Notre Dame’s hockey program made some national news when it was announced that the Irish would join the Big Ten in hockey as an affiliate member. The move will come in the 2017-18 season, meaning one more year playing in the Hockey East, Notre Dame’s conference since the CCHA dissolved before the 2013 season.
In a statement provided by the athletic department, Jack Swarbrick cited the following reasons for the move:
“While we have enjoyed our affiliation with Hockey East, the opportunity to participate in Big Ten hockey is a compelling one from the perspective of our student-athletes. The move will significantly reduce the time our team spends traveling, increase the broadcast exposure for our program and allow us to take advantage of the natural rivalries that exist with the Big Ten schools that participate in hockey,” Swarbrick said.
The move raised some eyebrows on the national level. After decades of discussions about joining the Big Ten—but only as a full member participating in football—it was Notre Dame’s hockey team that was allowed to join the conference as an affiliate member.
Was there more to this? (Count the South Bend Tribune’s Al Lesar as one of the loudest voices asking the silly question.) Could this be the first step in a relationship that seemed all but dead?
Don’t count on it.
Swarbrick joined the Big Ten Network to discuss the move, and in doing so made it pretty clear that the Irish were plenty happy with their current partnership with the ACC and the hockey-only affiliate membership that is set to begin after next season.
“I think hockey is very different. Different in terms of the Big Ten needs, the Big Ten’s own assessment of the hockey conference arrangement, and ours as well,” Swarbrick told the B1G Network’s Dave Revsine.
“When you extend beyond hockey you’re in a situation where, of course, the Big Ten is very pleased with its conference alignment and the structure of its conference and we’re very pleased with both our ACC relationship and our ability to maintain independence with football.”
Unpacking that statement requires a look at the hockey conference the Big Ten has struggled to build and a general understanding of today’s college hockey. After essentially destroying the WCHA and CCHA by forming its own league, the Big Ten hasn’t turned into the hockey juggernaut many expected, mostly because of downturns in historically strong programs like Minnesota and Wisconsin.
That’s likely exacerbated a problem that college hockey has been struggling with as a whole—getting people to watch a sport that relies heavily on geographic rivalries. Just look at some of the scary photos that came from NCAA regionals, played in historic hockey hotbeds like Minnesota and Boston.
While most look at Notre Dame as a school with a gold-plated checkbook, travel challenges and logistics are a real factor in a decision like this. So is finding the right institutional match for the conference.
Swarbrick mentioned a natural rivalry with Boston College. But a run down the 12-team conference shows few matches, especially when you consider that most Hockey East programs build their roster through experienced junior hockey players, putting the Irish in a situation where even their oldest senior is often times one of the youngest of the ten skaters on the rink.
The Big Ten is a supporter of legislation that’ll set an age limit for incoming recruits, moving the threshold from 21 down to 20-years-old, or two years removed from a player’s expected high school graduation. That’s the type of player that Notre Dame recruits, and it’s the type of player that Big Ten programs build around as well.
The move isn’t unprecedented for the Big Ten. In lacrosse, Johns Hopkins became an affiliate member of the conference in 2015. Swarbrick revealed that the move wasn’t out of the blue, but rather the product of discussions that started with a scheduling alignment and ultimately resulted in joining the conference on the ice.
You can watch Swarbrick’s entire interview with the Big Ten network below. But for those worried that the Irish are considering uprooting an athletic department that’s found a very comfortable home in the ACC, fear not.