Allen Lessels' UNH Hockey: Hockey East might add UConn next
DURHAM -- The Fighting Irish are coming. The Huskies of the University of Connecticut may not be far behind.
Hockey East announced early last October that the University of Notre Dame will join the league for the 2013-14 season.
“It's a big change,” said University of New Hampshire coach Dick Umile. “It just adds to the depth and the level of the league and bringing them onto the schedule is tremendous. Their hockey program is always at a national level and to have Notre Dame coming on campus every two years is pretty exciting.”
UNH and Notre Dame are tentatively scheduled to play for the first time as league rivals on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 of 2014, at the Whittemore Center.
Connecticut, which currently plays in the Atlantic Hockey Association, is likely to join Hockey East the following season.
A final decision on UConn could come as early as next month when the athletic directors from Hockey East gather for their annual meetings.
Talks between Hockey East and UConn officials have heated up in recent months and both sides have been studying the feasibility of teaming up. While no formal invitation has been extended to the Huskies yet, it's clear that — barring any last-minute hitches — it's only a matter of time before one will be.
“Right now, we're looking very closely at UConn,” said Marty Scarano, the director of athletics at UNH. “I think it's safe to say that it's very close to being consummated.”
Hockey East started out as a seven-team league for the 1984-85 season and added Merrimack for the 1989-90 season, Massachusetts (1994-95) and Vermont brought it to 10 teams in 2006-07.
A major overhaul of the college hockey landscape — including the creation of Big 10 hockey for 2013-14 that will include Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin — led to Notre Dame coming to Hockey East.
“Once we made the move to 11, we had to make the move to 12,” Scarano said. “We knew that. We had talked to Notre Dame and Miami of Ohio and when Miami elected not to join us, we had to cast our attention elsewhere.”
Twelve is much more attractive for scheduling and postseason tournament reasons and when it came time to look, UConn was an obvious direction.
Hockey East has long relished the idea of adding the Huskies. UConn fits well into Hockey East travel layout and gives the league a presence in every state in New England.
Few doubt that UConn, given its success in men's and women's basketball as well as football, can become a team to be reckoned with in the league.
“I, personally, have always been bullish on UConn,” Scarano said. “Institutionally, they're a lot like all of us and seemingly everything they do, they do well. They're not going to get into this and be satisfied with anything but competing for a league championship at some point. They made that very clear to us.”
The addition of Notre Dame and UConn will also make a competitive league — arguably the toughest in the nation and one that has won four of the last five NCAA championships thanks in large part to Boston College — even more so.
“It will make things a little more difficult,” Umile said. “And it's already tough.”
UConn, in particular, will be a rival in recruiting, too. The Huskies, who will start off playing their home games at the XL Center in Hartford, do not offer scholarships in hockey and if they join Hockey East will need to add 18 scholarships for the sport.
“At some point in time, they'll be recruiting identically the same kids we recruit,” Scarano said.
The addition of Notre Dame and likely UConn will cause various adjustments for the league.
For the 2013-14 season, Umile said, schools will play two games against each team in the league for a total of 20 league contests. The other 14 games, for a regular season total of 34, will be against non-conference opponents.
It has yet to be decided, Scarano and Umile said, what the approach will be when and if UConn signs on for 2014. Options include playing 22 league games each season or going to an unbalanced schedule with two divisions.
Scheduling may cause some friction within the league.
Schools such as Boston College, Boston University and UNH may like the idea of playing more nonconference games and should have little problem finding high-profile games. Others, UMass-Lowell and Merrimack among them, may have more trouble getting teams to come to their rink and that could end up hurting them down the road in power ratings.
There is also a question of what to do with the league playoffs.
Eight of the 10 Hockey East teams qualify for the playoffs these days. Other leagues allow all of their teams into the league tournament and Scarano and Umile think that is the best way to go.
Those are questions for later.
In the meantime, UNH has a season to play.
On Thursday, Umile announced his eight-member recruiting class for the fall and on Friday released the schedule for the upcoming season.
The season opens with a pair of home games against St. Cloud State on Oct. 12 and 13 and closes with a pair of home games against Maine on March 8 and 9.
In between, the Wildcats play Dartmouth in the Ledyard Classic in Hanover on Dec. 28. For the first season since the Verizon Wireless Arena opened in the fall of 2001, UNH and Dartmouth will not play in the Manchester rink. Umile said the series will continue there the following season.
The Wildcats will however, take on Merrimack College at the Verizon on Jan. 26 next season.
“We think that's going to be a good one,” Umile said. “They have a pretty good following. It's a Regional site again and I'm sure they're excited about the opportunity to go back there in the tournament. I know we are.”
Allen Lessels covers college hockey for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.