On Tuesday, it was announced the CCHA – Miami’s conference from 1981 until its demise in 2013 – will be resurrected, with seven of the current 10 WCHA teams re-brandishing themselves as members of the defunct league.
On Thursday, College Hockey News indicated the RedHawks are interested in departing the NCHC in favor of the reborn conference.
Real quick history here: Miami and 10 other schools, including Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan, played in the CCHA until seven years ago.
The Big Ten, adding a sixth member in Penn State, formed its own conference in 2013. At that point, Notre Dame joined Hockey East. At the same time, Miami and Western Michigan joined six then-WCHA teams to form the NCHC.
The two Alaska teams, two UP schools, Bowling Green and Ferris State merged with the WCHA, which had lost not only six of its key members to the NCHC, but also Wisconsin and Minnesota to the Big Ten.
It was a major realignment in college hockey, and without the geographically-centralized Big Ten schools as members of the WCHA and NCHC, those leagues have struggled with travel costs since.
So now the seven midwestern WCHA members have basically said their league cannot survive with both Alaska school as well as Alabama-Huntsville, which it added in 2013. That’s why they are recreating the CCHA, a brand Bowling Green holds the rights to (and therefore wouldn’t have to incur the costs of creating a new conference), and not inviting the three outliers.
The RedHawks were a force in the latter years of the CCHA, winning two NCAA regional titles, a CCHA Tourmament and were regular season league champs in the final five seasons alone.
In 2013-14, the first season of the NCHC, Miami suffered its first losing season in nine years.
The RedHawks rebounded by finishing second in the league the following campaign and capturing an NCHC Tournament championship.
But since then, MU has struggled, and after a 15-win 2015-16 season, the team has not won more than 12 games, and with six victories heading into the final three weeks of the regular season, it’s not looking like the RedHawks will even come close to that mark.
They have a .290 winning percentage after New Year’s the past four seasons and are 1-17-1 in March in that span.
It’s been a bad few years for Miami hockey, no doubt.
But it’s a false equivalency to say there RedHawks’ struggles are a result of their move to the NCHC.
Current coach Chris Bergeron left his post as a Miami assistant in 2010 for the top job in Bowling Green.
Jeff Blashill – now the Detroit Red Wings’ head coach – accepted a job with the Indiana Ice of the USHL in 2008, and in his two seasons heading that program in Indianapolis, he still helped funnel players like Blake Coleman, Sean Kuraly, Joe Hartman and Alex Wideman through his juniors team to Oxford.
Both were completely hands-off the Miami program by the end of the 2009-10 season, with Coleman and Kuraly still advancing through the Indiana pipeline, joining the RedHawks in 2010-11 and 11-12, respectively.
So the last players either Bergeron or Blashill would have had any part in guiding to the RedHawks graduated in 2016.
Miami has one winning season since 2014 and is 38-80-21 in the four seasons since Kuraly graduated.
That means the current graduating class has a winning percentage of .349.
Two seasons ago, the assistant coaches in charge of recruiting were let go, and after 2018-19, head coach Enrico Blasi was relieved of duty after 20 seasons at the helm.
After nine seasons at Bowling Green, Bergeron – an MU alum and long-time assistant of the RedHawks – was hired last spring, and he is charged with returning this program to relevance.
Miami’s titanic struggles over the past few seasons are clearly not a direct result of the team’s move to the NCHC.
At the time, the move to that league was absolutely the best one the RedHawks could make. It was a chance to become part of a power league, and Miami’s resume at that point warranted membership.
Travel would not be optimal, granted, with two teams in Colorado, one in North Dakota and two in Minnesota. But Western Michigan gave Miami a natural busing partner and Nebraska-Omaha was also within driving range.
It was a 24-game league slate, so you schedule your five non-conference series against teams in the same hemisphere, right?
The RedHawks didn’t do that. In the past few seasons, Miami has done a tour of New England, with home-and-homes vs. Maine, New Hampshire, UMass-Lowell and Connecticut, not to mention a long-standing series vs. Providence.
And of course, these series are scheduled multiple years out, but it does seem some common sense prevailed at some point, as Miami played Ferris State this season, which is an easy five-hour bus ride, the RedHawks will play Bowling Green for the forseeable future, and MU is trying to schedule Ohio State again.
Bergeron has made no secret of the fact he isn’t happy with Miami’s schedule this season. He left the RedHawks before the NCHC, and while current league commissioner Josh Fenton did overlap with him as assistant athletic director at MU the last few seasons that Bergeron was an assistant in Oxford, Bergeron has little allegiance to the NCHC.
His Bowling Green program was not invited into that league, and it’s one of the worst-kept secrets in college hockey that he and former Miami coach Enrico Blasi had a years-long falling out after the RedHawks changed conferences.
The Blasi-led RedHawks absolutely made the right call to join the league. NCHC teams have won the last four NCAA titles, the Big Ten was never going to invite Miami into its league, and had Miami entered the WCHA, its travel problems would have been worse in a conference with two Alaska teams.
Is joining a league with Bowling Green, Ferris State, three UP schools and a couple more from Minnesota a better fit for the RedHawks?
No way. For Miami, it would be a catastrophic mistake to leave the NCHC.
The NCHC is presently the best college hockey league by far. You don’t leave the top league because you struggle for a handful of seasons.
Is Purdue football asking out of the Big 10 or 11 or 14 because of its woes the past decade?
And if Miami left the NCHC, what would the proverbial greener pastures be? A newly-reformed CCHA with three teams in the UP, two of which are 12-hour bus rides away, and two more teams in Minnesota that are a combined 27-hour drive from Oxford.
Admittedly it would be a little less travel and marginally more opponent name recognition, although with the Big Ten schools locked in their own conference, Northern Michigan, Lake Superior State, Bowling Green and Ferris State are the only remaining foes from Miami’s former conference, and the latter two are already under contract to play the RedHawks.
Add in that Miami would have to pay a substantial fee to leave the NCHC. It would cost the program one season of operating expenses, which would run well into seven figures.
Then there’s the quality of play. The RedHawks would be vacating the undisputed best conference in college hockey for a league that is a huge step down in terms of talent.
Currently two WCHA teams set to join the CCHA are ranked in the top 20. Hockey East has six. The Big Ten has three.
The NCHC has four out of eight, including Nos. 1, 4 and 7.
The recruiting that goes along with that notoriety is highly significant.
Multiple RedHawks scholar-athletes the past few seasons have said the NCHC was a key reason they committed to Miami.
Television rights alone drive that mentality. TV exposure = more eyeballs on your team = more chance to advance to the next level.
Exposure is college sports PR 101.
North Dakota, St. Cloud State, Minnesota-Duluth and Denver are well known within the college hockey community, and outlets will continue to broadcast their games.
Not true for most schools set to enter the CCHA. Is CBS College Sports really going to show a Northern Michigan-Michigan Tech game in prime time?
And CHN suggested that the only two ranked schools, Minnesota State and Bemidji State, could shift to the NCHC in favor of Western Michigan and Miami, further weakening the new league to the point where only the CCHA Tournament champion could make the NCAAs.
WMU has been a decent NCHC team but hardly a national power.
Then there’s the financial penalty for leaving the NCHC. Considering the entire MU athletic and academic community is set for substantial cuts – word is it’s six percent for RedHawks hockey, which will likely bus to many of its northern opponents in 2020-21 – adding another lump sum cost to the program probably won’t fly with the AD and president.
A fee to depart a league athletic director David Sayler rightly endorsed when Miami joined in 2013.
The Bergeron-assistant era CCHA that was Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State – all easy bus rides away – is gone for good. The “name recognition” of Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan from students who were 14 to 16 when Miami joined the NCHC will bring zero new fans to Cady Arena.
Other former league foes Bowling Green and Ferris State already came to Oxford in 2019-20 and didn’t exactly generate sell-outs. BG drew 2,500 and both FSU games saw crowds of about 2,300.
It would be best for college hockey as a whole if we went back to pre-2013, before the Big Ten. It isn’t going to happen. The 53 teams not in their league are forced to fend for themselves and create new rivalries.
Miami is currently in a great situation, as it’s a privilege to play in the NCHC, the best D-I conference by far, run by a former Miami assistant AD. The alternative is admitting MU can’t hang with college hockey’s big boys.
Bergeron will turn this program around regardless, but it will be a lot harder if the RedHawks are playing in a much weaker league.
It would be devastating if the program dropped of out the best college hockey conference in the world because of a bad half decade that had everything to do with sub-par recruiting and coaching and nothing to do with the league.