In the fifth year of the Big Ten Conference’s hockey league, a new team joins, a new playoff structure creates a different feel for the regular season and Michigan schools start with new leadership.
Here are five things to watch around the Big Ten in the 2017-18 men’s hockey season:
Here come the Irish
There were good reasons for those around the Big Ten to be looking forward to Notre Dame joining the hockey league this season.
For starters, it was an expansion from the six-team base that was in place since the league was created in 2013. A group of that size wasn’t ideal because of the high number of non-conference games required, but it was what the Big Ten had to live with.
And there’s always material benefits of having another high-visibility school in your ranks, especially one that has a national media deal that could put more games on TV.
The additional plus is the Fighting Irish enter the league on the heels of a Frozen Four appearance and should make the group as a whole better.
Even without two of the most important players from last year’s group — Mequon native Anders Bjork, the leading scorer, signed with Boston and goaltender Cal Petersen signed with Buffalo — the Irish have an experienced group that should be in the mix for a third straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Changing the schedule
Adding Notre Dame extended the conference schedule to 24 games — teams play all six opponents twice at home and twice on the road — but the change to the schedule with the most significance might be at the end of the season.
With all Big Ten playoff games taking place at team home venues this season, the postseason has been extended from one weekend to three. The regular season champion gets a quarterfinal bye while the other six teams determine the other three semifinalists in best-of-three series. The semifinals and championship are one-game playoffs played at higher remaining seeds.
The league voted a year ago to scrap the one-weekend, five-game format once the series of contracts with venues was over at the end of the 2017 postseason. Attendance was abysmal in the last three years for the neutral-site events in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Detroit.
Because of the longer postseason, Big Ten teams have two fewer weekends to schedule regular-season games than they did in the last four seasons. The University of Wisconsin, for instance, scheduled 35 games over 22 weekends this season after playing 34 games plus two exhibitions in 24 weekends in 2016-17.
Because of scheduling conflicts at the Kohl Center, the University of Wisconsin would host the league championship game at the Dane County Coliseum if it earns that spot.
New faces behind the benches
Last season was only the second time in the past 38 years that both Michigan and Michigan State had losing records. (The other was in 2012-13.)
Red Berenson’s 33-season stint as Michigan coach came to an end with a 13-19-3 campaign — the program’s worst season since 1986-87.
The Spartans moved on from coach Tom Anastos after their worst finish since 1977-78, 7-24-4.
Both schools went with the trendy pick for successors. Mel Pearson, who spent 23 seasons as an assistant to Berenson before six seasons leading Michigan Tech, is back in Ann Arbor to run the Wolverines.
Michigan State hired alumnus Danton Cole away from the USA Hockey National Team Development Program to start the rebuilding of the Spartans program.
Hope for an eighth
One way to expand the league is to add sport affiliate members like Notre Dame. The other is to have a full Big Ten member sponsor a hockey program.
The most likely candidate for the latter is Illinois, which in June launched an evaluation of the feasibility of adding hockey to its sports program. The NHL and NHL Players Association are funding studies of the potential to add men’s and women’s hockey at five schools, and Illinois was the first to sign up.
The state of Illinois produces the fifth-most Division I men’s players but hasn’t had a top-level varsity program since Illinois-Chicago dropped the sport in 1996.
“I think it’s something we can be great at given the quality of play that’s happening in the state of Illinois,” Fighting Illini athletic director Josh Whitman told Illini Inquirer.
There are plenty of hurdles, but funding is the one that is toughest to overcome.
Penn State started its men’s and women’s hockey programs and built an arena with a $102 million donation from Terry and Kim Pegula. Arizona State got a $32 million donation from a group that includes Milwaukee businessman Don Mullett to start playing but has yet to find a conference.
What’s in a name?
Mariucci Arena is out. Sort of.
Minnesota still plays in the same building that it has since 1993, but it’s now known as 3M Arena at Mariucci after the Minnesota-based company inked a 14-year naming deal that pays the school $11.2 million.
Golden Gophers athletics officials said keeping the Mariucci name, honoring longtime coach John Mariucci, on the arena was important. But the money is going toward their $166 million athletes village set to open in January.
Getting fans to use the new name sounds like a tall task: The Gophers have played in an arena with Mariucci at the head of the title since 1985. But maybe 3M — the maker of various adhesive products — will be able to make it stick.