Could Nebraska Start a B1G Hockey Team?

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Speculation is increasing that Nebraska might start a division 1 hockey program now that the Big Ten is sanctioning hockey. The CN team discusses the viability of Husker Hockey.

During his formal introduction, incoming Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst mentioned Wisconsin women's hockey coach Mark Johnson as one of his biggest mentors and influences.

"Mark Johnson's been a huge influence on me and the way that he's lived his life. Probably the greatest American-born skater, but you'd never know it."

That led Eric Olson of the Associated Press to predict that Eichorst will look to add hockey to the Nebraska athletic department.

Adding Husker hockey as an NCAA sanctioned sport would raise Title IX issues, though that could be solved by adding women's hockey.

In the Big Ten, six men's teams will play next season under the sponsorship of the Big Ten. Minnesota and Wisconsin will depart the WCHA, while Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State will leave the CCHA. Penn State's hockey program begins play this season as an independent. Four B1G schools sponsor women's hockey: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State. If two more Big Ten schools start women's teams, the Big Ten could then sponsor women's hockey as well.

Husker hockey has been a subject that's been brought up from time to time. Past Nebraska athletic directors have dismissed that idea in the past, but now that Nebraska and hockey are suddenly both part of the Big Ten, it's an idea that's gaining traction.

We asked the CN gang as well as some Nebraska-Omaha hockey fans to give us their input on the possibility of Husker Hockey.

How would hockey fit into the Nebraska athletic department? Does it grow the interest in Husker athletics, or does it fragment the existing market?

Aaron: To be honest, outside of football, baseball, basketball and volleyball, there is very little buzz with the rest of UNL athletics. Tiny bits about the soccer team here and the softball team there. A note if the bowling team wins the national title or a track and field title. I don't see the big four sports losing anything with the addition of hockey. Besides, getting your name out there is important. College students and athletic recruits are influenced when they hear about a schools athletic teams doing well. The more big time sports you have playing well, the more people hear positive things about your school. From a financial standpoint, most sports do not even hit the break even point financially. That should be the initial goal of a hockey team(s) and I think Nebraska can do that.

Mike: The USHL's Stars have shown that there is a market for hockey in Lincoln, but I still wonder how big the market would be statewide. Certainly, I don't think that it's going to be enough to fill Pinnacle Bank Arena on a regular basis. Growing the athletic department is a good thing, but I also wonder if it's just going to divide the existing market, with hockey support subtracting from support of basketball.

And with UNO announcing plans to build a new 7,500 seat arena adjacent to campus and move out of the 16,000 seat CenturyLink Center, one could argue that if the Huskers want to play hockey, they'll need a separate 7,000 seat facility, even if it's technically feasible to install ice in the Pinnacle Bank Arena.

Andy: It would fit right in nicely with its own niche. Sports fans tend to love one sport a little more, but are generally fans of many. Hockey, more than most, tends to have more die- hards than other sports. When you hear hockey people talk, the phrase "hockey community" pops up quite a bit. There's not a "football community" or a "baseball community" to name a couple. Hockey people think of it as more than a sport. It's somewhere between a lifestyle and a religion.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that it will be more of an issue for UNO (a little) and the Lincoln Stars (a lot) than any existing Husker sports. Hockey die hards aren't the ones with basketball tickets who will give them up for Big Red hockey. They're the ones who've been driving to Omaha to see the Mavericks or, more likely, packing the Icebox. See below.

Current students looking for something new might become acolytes.

Brian: There is an argument to be made about the Huskers having a affect on the Lincoln Stars attendance base. Last year, Lincoln was the leader in attendance amongst all USHL teams . However, it's easy to see that maybe the talent would be going to Lincoln just as much as it heads to Denvery or UNO even. Nebraska would be able to recruit the Dakotas very well, along with a vast majority of USHL teams that are within half a day's drive from Lincoln.

Greg: I do think hockey would grow the athletic department. Hockey has been growing in Lincoln since the early days of the Lancers. A portion of the initial season ticket holders for the Lancers were from Lincoln. Since then then, you've added the Stars and youth hockey to Lincoln. Most of those that would make up the Husker Hockey season ticket base are not your current basketball season ticket holders.

Will Husker fans embrace hockey?

Aaron: Yes. To be honest, there is kind of a sports void in winter in the state. Yes there's basketball, but it doesn't generate the buzz that football does. Hockey won't do it either, but it will add to what basketball brings.

Mike: Initially, yes. It'll be something new and cool. But it's going to take years for Nebraska to become competitive in the B1G, and that's going to drag down enthusiasm.

Andy: The die hards will embrace it - see Omaha. When the Mavs are modestly successful, they are always in the top 10 nationally in attendance in D1. You don't need 14,000 fans a night to be successful in D1 hockey. Hell, I think Michigan's place hold like 6000. Which is too many of those assholes in one place at a time if you ask me, but I digress.

Population being what it is, Lincoln won't measure up to Centurylink's attendance numbers but they don't have to. If the rink can be kept close to campus, then you should see a much better student presence than the Mavs, although that has improved recently as well.

Brian: It would take a while, but I could see it happening. The arena is close enough to downtown Lincoln for the casual fan to take an interest if things are going well, and a majority of the games are on the weekends where work and school wouldn't affect too many people.

Jon: I don't know about Nebraska and hockey. Haven't lived there since 1987, but I can tell you that hockey fans are a different type of people. The diehards are friggin' crazy, like soccer fans. Does Lincoln have those types of fans? I don't think so, but I could be wrong.

Greg: Yes, most definitely. You've got a strong hockey fan base to start with. You add a nightlife district right just steps outside the doors. It will be an event. I do agree the big challenge is how competitive the league will be for NU and having to support the team during the early struggles.

How successful could Husker hockey program be, both on the ice and financially?

Aaron: Hard to say. If they build a nice hockey arena they could get the best recruits in the land. Hire a great coach and they could compete for championships.

Mike: This is where I raise the red flags. Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have won six national championships combined in the last 20 years. OK, that's not quite as bad as the SEC winning nine football titles in the last 20 years, but let's be honest. When Ohio State is your Vanderbilt, you know it's a tough draw. While Nebraska can draw players from USHL programs, it's going to be tough - really tough - to get to crack the top four teams in the B1G. Especially when it's likely that half of the games each season will be against those power teams.

Once the novelty wears off, then the reality sets in. Nebraska fans are like any other; they don't want to watch their team get beat up game after game. Attendance is going to dwindle like it has for basketball in recent years. That will raise questions about whether it'll work financially. The big unknown is whether B1G hockey can be a revenue generator for BTN.

Andy: That's a tough one. Fan support would be solid and they're in the heart of USHL country which would help, but....

As Mike said above, the downside would be that there's already several entrenched programs that aren't sliding anytime soon. The upside is that if the Big 10 succeeds in roping others (more on that below), Nebraska will be far from alone as a doormat start-up.

The key will be the coaching hire. No one established will walk into a start-up situation. Hockey's a little different than basketball or football, though, in that NU probably could get a top 1st assistant who's been biding his time - college head coaches don't fire/hire/bounce around. When a school gets a good one, they weather the tough times with him and he doesn't leave. Head jobs therefore are a little rarer than other major sports. It's still a risk - see Kemp, Mike. People assumed he'd be rolling in NCAA bids after 5 or 6 years. Didn't happen.

And I'm assuming that they'd need a nicer place than the Icebox. Who's ready to pony up for a new hockey arena in Lincoln?

Brian: I think Andy forgot the big donation John Breslow once made for UNL to have an ice hockey arena on campus. (Yes, Yes I did. - Andy K). Furthermore, there are people who spend primo money on traveling to not only other USHL games, but NHL games (when not locked out by a hot garbage commish, just sayin) where they would love to donate to both a men's and women's hockey program. And I do think that being in the B1G, Nebraska would have to make a point to invest into the programs for it to be worthwhile. No reason not to, considering that no one likes to get stomped year after year. Granted, when the program starts that will happen, but if there is a progression of getting better, that's what will make it worthwhile.

Jon: Let me explain Minnesota hockey to you. There are four indoor ice rinks within five miles of my house. Expand that to 20 miles, and I can't even tell you how many there are. Hockey in Minnesota is a sport that if you can't skate (and I mean skate, not just stand up) by the time you're six or seven years old, your career is over. That is no exaggeration.

Success isn't about Nebraska building an "ice rink", if Nebraska expects to be successful, they're going to commit to the sport and build more ice rinks for practice time. Will Nebraska do that? I doubt it - the football and basketball people will fight it and kill it before it gets started.

Granted, they could import their players from other states, but that hasn't exactly made the basketball a winner, has it?

Greg: With the new athletic director I wonder how long it will be before they allow beer sales at Pinnacle Bank Arena? Not sure on what kind of lease NU has but I would imagine it's a much better one than UNO has at CenturyLink Center. NU has been a partner since the beginning and the only full time tenant.

I also think BTN is also something to consider. Hockey will be a key part of it's winter programming going forward, and could really help the programs involved.

What would be the impact on Husker hockey be on the other hockey programs (Nebraska-Omaha and USHL franchises in Kearney, Lincoln, and Omaha) in the region?

Aaron: My first thought on this would be a negative. More product could dilute the market. But then I got to thinking that it could be a bonus for the three USHL franchises. They are mostly high school kids after all. You could potentially have exhibition games between the college team and the semi-pro teams that would generate a lot of excitement and it could help recruit to Lincoln for men's hockey. As for UNO, it's hard to say but my initial thought is that it would be a slight negative for the Mavs. They are the state's college hockey team even though Nebraskans outside of Omaha area probably don't care much about the Mavs. The Huskers would become the states team. The Mavs football team folded and there are plenty of people in Omaha that could have supported it.

Mike: It'll be a negative originally for UNO, but Creighton basketball has shown that fans in Omaha will support a winner over a team wearing the "N". UNO's success will depend more on UNO than on what Nebraska is doing. Husker hockey will be bad early on, and there is an opportunity for UNO to build off the initial buzz of the new Husker program. Hockey is not a native sport in Nebraska; it's an acquired taste. And if people try Husker hockey out, they might find UNO hockey more interesting if the Mavs are more successful. A rising tide can lift all boats. I can't see this being good for the Lincoln Stars, though. The Kearney team might benefit a bit from more interest in the sport.

Andy: Without demographic info, it's all guesswork of course, but here's mine:

UNO - maybe a little hit. There's probably a few college hockey nuts who dutifully drive up every Friday & Saturday, but not too many I'm guessing. Most stay home and love their Stars

Lancers - Zip. Everybody who bailed on them for college hockey wasn't holding out for a Lincoln team.

Tri-City Storm - Minimal. They'll pull some curious single game fans for whom the drive just got an hour shorter, but I say that's it. College hockey in Lincoln won't cause caravans of fans lighting up the Kearney to Lincoln stretch of I-80.

Lincoln Stars - Probably not as devastating as you think and not for good reasons. Anyone who's been to a Stars game - or a Lincoln youth game for that matter - knows that a solid chunk of Lincoln fans (and parents) is batshit crazy with bloodlust. The USHL offers that, the NCAA does not. Stars attendance would drop, but not as precipitously as one might imagine. When the first Husker game ends without gloves on the ice & busted nose, these guys will return to the Stars.

Brian: I think if anything, it will help all USHL clubs in the state while not really making a difference on UNO. With another D-1 program to have scholarships, there will be just that many better players wanting to come to Tri-City, or Omaha, or Lincoln. Heck, the talent probably goes up in Des Moines and Sioux City even because then they get in that footprint and the UNL staff sees them play on tape or even live. And, to be honest, wouldn't it be nice to have a UNL/UNO rivalry finally?

Greg: For UNO I think it be be a very good thing. This will be the one marquee sport where UNO will truly be on equal footing or better with NU. UNO is in a BCS type of hockey conference, competes nationally, and has a top notch facility. It would be an instant rival for UNO and would probably be the highest attended game for UNO.

For the Lincoln Stars, Husker hockey would not be good. You only need to look a the Lancers before and after the debut of UNO hockey. Like the Lancers, the Stars will surivve but they will become the second citizen of Lincoln hockey.

The Tri City Storm might benefit with the increased exposure hockey would get statewide . It would give them the chance to see former players at the next level closer to home. Plus , it would be a big deal I imagine when one of their own signs with NU.

Put on your carnac hat. Will Nebraska play hockey in the Big Ten conference, and if so, when?

Aaron: I think they will eventually get hockey team(s) going. When the Big Ten announced their hockey conference, the question was asked to Tom and he mentioned that it wasn't financially feasible. They need a place to play, after all. It was kinda disappointing to hear since they were building the new arena downtown and they had a great opportunity to modify the plans to potentially accommodate a hockey team. The big issue is what to do about title IX. Do you start a women's hockey team too or do you add more women's sports?

When push comes to shove, if the B1G wants Nebraska to start a hockey program they could offer Nebraska a carrot on a stick. I.e. fully vested in the B1G sooner than later which would equate to more money for the athletic department. Our athletic department already does a good job with their revenue. The past couple years have be very conservative due to the conference move, but they should be good for the long run.

Mike: In my opinion, no. Unless, of course, the Big Ten finds a way to make it more attractive. I've long thought women's hockey made more sense at Nebraska than men's hockey. Women's hockey aids gender equity concerns. Men's hockey probably doesn't generate enough revenue to meet all of the costs (including the prerequisite adding of women's sports), so there has to be something that changes that dynamic. Sometimes, though, that dynamic is changed by fiat, not by numbers. If someone with the appropriate position of authority wants hockey, there will be hockey. The big question is whether that person is Shawn Eichorst.

Andy: If the decision is truly left to Nebraska, then no. I do not believe they are interested at all in doing a Division 1 startup and funding a new arena for it. And believe me, there would have to be a new arena, the Icebox is a dump. And not in a cool, old Chicago Stadium kind of way.

The big question is going to be - how much pressure is the Big 10 going to lay on the non-hockey schools to start a program? All are in high hockey-interest areas and haven't shown much interest in doing so for the past 60 years. I believe the answer to that question is "LOTS".

I just don't think the B1G decided to muscle Michigan, Michy State, OSU, Wiscy and the Gophers out their longtime homes for the honor of joining a 6-team league that regularly beats Penn St. like a 13-year-old being welcomed to the Crips.

Illinois has a small arena and had a team years back. Northwestern is in Chicago. Done. Indiana has a diehard hockey fan contingent and a solid population base - maybe enough for two teams in the Big 10's estimation. Iowa's on the fringe, but, hey - the state is home to half of the USHL for crying out loud.

Which leaves Nebraska - a school that's perfectly happy to let another member of their university system carry the sport as its Division 1 flagship program.

My prediction - If you see an announcement that Illinois (my guess as the next team to start up, but whoever) will begin Division 1 hockey on "X" date, then (sorry Lancers) the heat is officially on. In the end, though, I believe the conference will be satisfied when it hits 8-10 schools, and the Huskers will not be one of them.

Brian: I do think it happens in the decade, but not till at the very least ‘16 or ‘17. With how Tom Osborne seemed to squash it completely every time it was brought up, you'll have to start anew to Shawn Eichorst and such. That will take time, and it will also take time to figure out if you wanna use PBA or the Breslow Center. I could actually see both for the fact that the team will need a practice facility when the PBA isn't available for either basketball, concert, or other things. That's gonna be at least four to five years, and that's gracious as fast as the City of Lincoln goes when it comes to something different.

Jon: I'd be shocked if Nebraska were to add a hockey team. It's damned expensive, both in terms of facilities and equipment. They'd have to add a women's team because of Title IX, and then they'd have to find players.

Honestly, Nebraska would be better off adding lacrosse if they were looking to add another sport. The girl's game isn't very physical, but the guys get to whack each other with sticks. Who wouldn't be for that?

Greg: I think the odds are better than 50% that NU does. Probably in five years. Especially if there is a push from Jim Delany. NU seems to really listen to him. They went with his recommendations on the firm we used to hire the new AD and basketball coach. I think in the next few years, maybe when the conferences deal with Fox on BTN comes up for renewal, you will see a BTN2. I think hockey becomes a major part of the winter programming schedule, and there will be several more schools in the conference playing hockey, including NU. I think NU adds women's hockey at the same time.

Also, during the search for the new AD, it was often mentioned that TO has done all of the heaving lifting. There won't be any major building projects for a while. One way a new AD could put his stamp on the athletic department would be to add hockey.

So what's your take on the idea of NCAA College Hockey at Nebraska? Good idea, great idea, bad idea, or who cares?

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