Miami has played in two conferences during its 44-year existence in Division I: The CCHA and the NCHC.
While each league is currently thriving, both may turn off their lights for good in the coming years due to the colossal changes in the NCAA overall, Miami athletic director David Sayler said.
“I don’t know what the single-sport conference future is,” Sayler said. “With all the stuff going on at the NCAA level right now, there’s been tons and tons of dialogue about pushing decisions down to the conference level and the NCAA not sort of putting edicts out that everybody could get sued because of antitrust reasons. So if conferences are going to be making decisions and conferences are going to be managing compliance and academic eligibility and enforcing infractions and setting punishments, I don’t know that a single-sport conference is set up to handle that. In fact, I know that none are. So would the NCHC and the CCHA be able to exist as they do today? I know the schools in those leagues don’t have robust compliance departments to deal with these issues – they’re not even Division I athletic departments in some cases. So I don’t so much look at it as the choices of being NCHC or CCHA, I look at it as being: Is the future going to dictate that we need to be in an all-sport conference for hockey?”
Miami joined the CCHA in 1981 and played in that league until it dissolved in 2013 when the Big Ten formed its own conference, pulling Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State with it.
At that point, Miami and Western Michigan joined the newly-formed NCHC.
The CCHA was resurrected in 2021, and the possibility of the RedHawks returning to that league has been considered, but an exit fee from the NCHC would cost Miami over $1 million.
The Big Ten is presently the only all-sports conference that also exists in hockey.
“So what I’d say for everyone to watch for is how does this all unfold without the NCAA structure system, and then once that has time to happen, then the next step is going to be: What does that do to hockey and these set-ups that they have?” Sayler said. “The Big Ten is already there. If you had three all-sport conferences sponsoring hockey away from the east coast I just think it strengthens the sport. So that would be my goal, I would like to strengthen college hockey and bring it more inline with other sports.”
One future possible landing place for Miami hockey in a non single-sport conference world is the Summit League. Former Miami director of hockey operations Josh Fenton was the first commissioner of the NCHC and accepted the same position as head of that league this off-season.
Denver, North Dakota, Omaha and St. Thomas are current D-1 hockey programs that are full members of that conference, and Lindenwood is a new affiliate member that has vaulted to Division I hockey and begins play at that level starting this fall.
Another option could be the Mid-American Conference, which the RedHawks have been a member of since 1947. Of that league’s 12 members, only three have Division I hockey programs – Miami, Bowling Green and Western Michigan.
“Long term, I think the thing to really watch for is: Will the Summit League want to sponsor hockey – which is an all-sport Division I conference? Will the MAC consider sponsoring hockey, which is an all-sport conference that we can populate?” Sayler said. “Those are things in the future that if single-sport conferences don’t really have a place, those D-2 and D-3 schools would really benefit from being in an all-sport conference because of all these things that are coming down from the NCAA.”
With Fenton leaving the NCHC, Heather Weems – who was St. Cloud State’s athletic director – was named league commissioner this May.
“Heather’s got a really good sense of the league and why it was put together and how important it is to move together in a united fashion,” Sayler said. “I will say that she also has a really good grasp on the potential of regionalizing college hockey a bit more. And so I think she’s got a really good objective view of how things are going to proceed.”
While the athletic department has always supported Miami’s necessary move to the NCHC, Sayler mentioned two issues he has with the conference: The emphasis on the more geographically-desirable schools advancing to the Frozen Faceoff and discussion about Arizona State joining the league.
“Whenever the league throws out a doomsday scenario, it usually involves four schools being in the Frozen Faceoff in St. Paul: Miami, Western (Michigan), CC and Denver. Because then you have no local team participating, right?” Sayler said. “You don’t have any of the Minnesota schools, you don’t have North Dakota. Sometimes I do sit back and say, how does that make us feel, that we’re a member of this conference but yet a doomsday scenario is us being good? So there is some concern for that, and that tournament in St. Paul, plus the round of playoffs to get into that tournament are probably the most important revenue-drivers of the league. And Miami has the smallest rink in the league and we would probably sell as few tickets as any team in St. Paul, in the league. It does set up kind of funny that way when you start thinking about having more success and not driving more revenue for the league, and what is the league really focused on? And there has been constant chatter about Arizona State, and I just have no interest in crossing another time zone to play sports. So if the league is going to continue to push that direction, that is certainly something that would cause us to think differently about what’s going on.”
Arizona State went Division I in 2015-16 as an independent and is still seeking a conference. With six teams in the Central and Mountain time zones, the NCHC seems the logical geographical suitor for the Sun Devils, who are building an on-campus facility that will open this fall and also host the NHL Phoenix Coyotes for multiple seasons as their own rink is built.
Miami will play there in the fall of 2024.
NILs — which stand for name-image-likeness — represent another major shift in the NCAA, as student-athletes now have the opportunity to earn money in several ways, including promoting products, signing autographs or making personal appearances.
In hockey, top NHL draft picks that play Division I are only in college for a year or two like Jack Eichel, Cale Makar and Owen Power and typically aren’t in as high of demand as blue chippers in football or basketball.
Sayler said many of Miami’s hockey players are receiving some benefits from NILs, but at this point it’s mostly through social media.
“I don’t get the sense from talking to my counterparts that it’s caused a lot of movement, in terms of the dollar amounts aren’t the same amount as you read in the paper for football,” Sayler said. “But certainly kids are open to opportunities and I think in hockey in particular where it can benefit a kid is at a camp, if they put their name on a camp – they can get paid now. A lot of them wanted to do that (previously) but couldn’t. Now they have that opportunity and we’re supportive of that.”
The NCAA rule requiring transfers to sit out a year was recently paused, and it has created a wave of student-athletes switching schools. That isn’t good for college sports, Sayler said.
“I am concerned about how much schools are using it instead of recruiting high school and junior hockey kids – I think that’s going to have a negative impact on the sport,” Sayler said. “The sport needs more younger, junior hockey kids coming into it to continue to grow the game, so I’m a little concerned at the focus on the portal schools have put in terms of, when they need something they just go to that first, but what I think you’re going to see with the portal is you’re going to see some windows of time where the portal will be open, and then it will be shut. And I think that’s important because you’re constantly in limbo right now about when kids could go in or not go in, and you’re not really sure – you almost have to re-recruit your entire team. I think at some point in every sport based on what season the sport is, there’s going to be a window of time when the student-athletes can enter the portal but once it hits a period of time after the season ends, at that point their kind of locked in and they have to sit out a year, so I think that’ll bring a lot more clarity to the situation and that will benefit the coaches a great deal.”
Sayler foresees high off-season traffic in college hockey dwindling soon.
“I think that the process of the portal is going to kind of sort itself out in the next couple years,” Sayler said. “It’s kind of the thing to do now, the student-athlete says ‘I don’t like this, I’m just going to transfer’, and, what’s been happening is more and more, you’re seeing a lot of kids who don’t end up finding somewhere to go, and so the more those stories hit, the more I think in the next couple years kids will be hesitant to jump in there.”
Regardless of league or recruiting tactics, Miami needs to put up more wins, Sayler said. The RedHawks have just 20 of them in three seasons under Chris Bergeron.
But Bergeron took over a team in 2019 that was in sharp decline. COVID also shut down in-person recruiting for over a year, stunting his staff’s ability to rebuild the program.
“I do think – and I hate to say this because everybody doesn’t want to hear it – but I do think COVID affected hockey more than our other sports here at Miami, and the reason I say that is that recruiting was basically shut down for a whole year,” Sayler said. “When you’re a new coach who took over a program that needs more people and an infusion of ability and talent, that was really hampered.”
Bergeron is in the fourth season of a seven-year contract and for the first time will have an entire roster of players his staff brought in.
“We certainly want to see improvement from the top down, everybody involved, and I know we’ve had lots of discussions,” Sayler said. “I believe that Coach Bergeron is really focused on recruiting the kind of kids he wants now and feels like are going to make the program grow and get back to what it was, and we’ve put all of our efforts into that.”
While Miami brought in six transfers and four freshmen last season, all of the 2022-23 RedHawks newcomers except third goalie Carter McPhail will be in their first year of eligibility.
“I think we took some transfers, in hindsight I don’t know that all of them would’ve been ones that we would’ve chosen today, but we really didn’t have any other choice,” Sayler said. “I’m very involved with Coach Bergeron and he knows that I’m supportive of him and what he’s trying to do here, and we’re going to give him every available resource to make this work because it’s an important piece of our athletic profile.”
Miami finished last season with seven wins and a last-place finish in the league, but Sayler said he was encouraged with team’s rejuvenation after the program’s hitting-bottom moment that was the weekend its was outscored, 19-1 in a pair of losses at St. Cloud State.
“At least last year after the difficult weekend that we had at St. Cloud, I felt like Berge really got them refocused and they were very competitive every single series after that, but we need to start winning some of those close games,” Sayler said. “The one that I really point to is the Denver series where we lost a gut-wrenching two-goal lead at the end of regulation and then lost in overtime, and I thought for sure we were going to have a tough time the next night, but the next night we came right back out and played amazing right down the stretch again, so I give the kids credit that they were resilient and really stayed competitive and had a lot of one-goal games, but to me the turning point that we need to see is us winning some of those games and not losing those leads – just being able to finish games, basically, and I think that’s a confidence thing, (and) trust in your teammates and your own ability. And I think that the combination of the kids that are returning that we’re excited about plus the ones (coming) in – the kids are a bit older, in general and a bit more sturdy, and I feel like we’ll be able to pull some of those games out, and that’s really want to see is a pivot in that end-of-game scenario and how we can be stronger.”
Sayler has been a major vocal supporter of the hockey program since taking over the AD job nearly 10 years ago and wants to see the program return to its apex when it appeared in back-to-back Frozen Fours and qualified for the NCAA Tournament eight straight seasons.
“We’re going to keep Miami hockey in a strong position and keep growing it back to what it needs to be,” Sayler said. “That’s something I’m committed to. I enjoy hockey games and my son plays travel hockey so I’ve spent a lot of time at that rink and I want to see Miami get back to what it was, whether it’s in this league or any other league.”