The Big Ten has been an easy target for college hockey fans’ frustration about the game’s many changes in the eight years the multi-sport league has included hockey under its umbrella.
You hear the inaccurately-named league — which has 14 official members and two more affiliates, but just seven hockey programs — blamed for the loss of long-standing rivalries and the drop in attendance and the new places games are found on TV and everything else, with the possible exception of the ice quality.
But for the first few years of Big Ten hockey, the easiest criticism one could level on the conference, which was founded 125 years ago with Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan among its charter members, is that the hockey just was not very good, top to bottom.
In the league’s first season, 2013-14, two teams (Minnesota and Wisconsin) made the 16-team NCAA tournament. The Gophers went all the way to the title game, falling to Union. The next year, just the Gophers made the field. In the 2015-16 season, Minnesota won the regular season title, but did not make it to the NCAA tournament, as only playoff champion Michigan got an invite. Such was the reputation of Big Ten hockey at the time that winning the conference title was not deemed enough of an accomplishment to have you playing games in late March.
The turnaround started in 2017, with three teams from the conference — Minnesota, Ohio State and first-timer Penn State — getting invites. The Gophers were a top seed in their regional, but fell in Round 1 to Notre Dame, which was still in Hockey East at the time. A year later, the Irish joined the Big Ten as an affiliate, and promptly won the regular season and playoff titles, going all the way to the Frozen Four title game, where they fell to Minnesota Duluth in St. Paul.
That weekend at Xcel Energy Center was a kind of coming-out party for the conference, which placed three of the four teams at the Frozen Four. Ohio State and Michigan both made the tournament as well, with the Buckeyes falling to UMD and the Wolverines falling victim to a dramatic Irish comeback in the semifinals. Even after a disappointing loss, Michigan coach Mel Pearson was able to reflect on the bigger picture.
“The Big Ten’s here, here to stay. Great coaches. Great players. It’s going to be a tough league year after year,” said Pearson, who had just finished his first season as the Wolverines head coach. “One thing the Big Ten has done that I found in my first year is that it prepares you for anything, for any opponent you’re going to see. You’re not going to see many opponents better than we had in the Big Ten this year and the depth we had. So I think this is what everybody expected when the Big Ten was formed and it’s only going to get better.”
After getting two teams in the 2019 tournament, the Big Ten is back at “full strength” in 2021, with four of its seven teams competing for Frozen Four trips next weekend. Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan have been near-locks for a month. Notre Dame was a bubble team, with many quality wins and a bewildering 11 home losses. But when St. Lawrence had to bow out of the tournament, it opened the door for some reshuffling, and the Irish may have benefitted. Still, their coach sees a conference deserving of the invites it received.
“Our conference has been like this almost every year I’ve been a part of it, and it deserves the respect that it got this weekend,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said in the wake of Sunday’s selection show.
True, nothing is “normal” in 2021, with the Ivy League schools not playing and most teams competing exclusively within their own conferences. Gophers coach Bob Motzko feels the “conference only” competition has, in fact, showcased the strength of the Big Ten, top to bottom.
“This was the best our league has ever been in my three years,” Motzko said, reflecting on his time at St. Cloud State, in the conference that has produced the last four national champions. “When I was in the NCHC, you just knew we were 4-5 teams strong, and deep. You just knew it from the eyeball test. Let me tell you, the Big Ten this year was four and five teams deep, and I think they got it right.”
True, the Big Ten has not yet claimed a NCAA title, with Minnesota in 2014 and Notre Dame in 2018 both finishing as runners-up. The last team from the conference to win a national title was Michigan State in 2007, when the Spartans still played in the first incarnation of the CCHA.
All things are cyclical in college hockey, with the strength of individual conferences rising and falling regularly. At the Frozen Four we have seen an all-ECAC final (Yale vs. Quinnipiac, 2013) an all-Hockey East final (Boston University vs. Providence, 2015) and an all-NCHC final (UMD vs. Denver, 2017) within the past decade, and we saw an all-WCHA Frozen Four not too long ago, when Denver, Colorado College, North Dakota and the Gophers made up the field in Columbus in 2005.
Still, with one-fourth of the NCAA tournament field hailing from the conference, and lots of young talent in the league, perhaps the best of times for Big Ten hockey have arrived.