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Big Ten Hockey Expansion Could Include Arizona State ... and Maybe Nebraska?

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Next fall, college hockey adds it's 60th team in a rather unexpected place:  Arizona State University in Tempe. The Sun Devils hope to be trailblazers as the first Pac-12 school to add hockey, with the hope that they won't be the only Pac-12 hockey school for long.  Arizona State will spend their first two seasons as an independent (they play UNO just before Christmas in Omaha) before looking to join a conference. Long-term, Arizona State hopes that it's the Pac-12...but for now, the Devils will have to find a home in another hockey conference.

The first thought in hockey circles is that Arizona State would join the WCHA or NCHC. The WCHA consists of ten smaller schools in Alaska, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and Alabama, while the NCHC consists of UNO, North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud State, Western Michigan and Miami (Ohio). This season, the NCHC has been college hockey's powerhouse conference, with six of the eight teams earning berths in the sixteen team NCAA tournament.  The notion that Arizona State would be the ninth NCHC team led to speculation that Notre Dame would leave Hockey East to round out the NCHC at ten teams.

But more recently, the focus has turned towards Arizona State playing hockey in the Big Ten. When the Big Ten added Johns Hopkins as an associate member for Lacrosse, the precedence for adding teams for individual sports was made.  The Rose Bowl relationship between the Big Ten and Pac-12 certainly makes it a reasonable much so that Big Ten associate commissioner Jennifer Heppel (who oversees hockey) publicly suggested that the Big Ten makes the most sense for Arizona State.

"I think being in a conference with like institutions is important," Heppel said. "[Arizona State] is going to have to think about that from an institutional and sport perspective. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have a historic relationship."

So assuming that the Big Ten is adding Arizona State, the wheels start spinning on adding another school because it's awkward having a conference with an odd number of members. Earlier this month, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that multiple Big Ten schools are quietly discussing adding hockey. Earlier this month, a suburb of Iowa City proposed building a 7,000 seat arena as a home for a potential hockey team. Last week, Frank the Tank, the insightful blogger who has been correct far more often than anybody else in predicting college realignment threw out his thoughts on who that eighth Big Ten hockey team would be:

Instead, from what I've heard for at least the past year, Nebraska is by far the closest to jumping up to Division I hockey. The Cornhuskers' new Pinnacle Bank Arena has icemaking capabilities and the school is also opening a new separate ice arena that can easily be used as a practice facility. Since Nebraska has the expensive physical facilities in place already, they've already fought the vast majority of the battle in starting a program. Nebraska has a top tier fundraising operation, as well, so they can get the money into place once they're given the green light. There have been rumblings about Northwestern, Indiana and Iowa looking at hockey, but if you're a betting person, you should wager heavily on Nebraska as the next existing Big Ten school to add the sport.

We've discussed Husker hockey several times before, and I still consider it somewhat unlikely...but getting potentially less that way. In two years, Nebraska will be fully vested in BTN and will also be able to fully benefit from the Big Ten's next television contract.  That could mean another $30 million in revenue each year, which goes a long way towards funding new sports.

There are other issues to hockey at Nebraska, but they aren't insurmountable. Gender equity requires adding women's sports; women's hockey could fill that need. Three other Big Ten schools (Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio State) play women's hockey in the WCHA, since the Big Ten doesn't field enough women's teams to sponsor hockey. There is the issue with competing with UNO's program, though with UNO downsizing their program into a 7,500 seat arena, that may be less of an issue. I also wonder if the Lincoln market can support hockey without cannibalizing ticket sales for basketball.

But if the money is really there, the idea of Nebraska hockey isn't quite as far-fetched as it once seemed.