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Wisconsin lobbies for Big Ten to start hockey conference

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GRAND FORKS -- UND and Minnesota will pack about 12,000 frenzied fans in Ralph Engelstad Arena this weekend for the longest standing college hockey rivalry in the country.

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Don't expect the rivalry to go anywhere, despite the University of Wisconsin's wishes that the Gophers pull out of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and start up a Big Ten Hockey Conference.

Wisconsin admitted publicly this week what has been known in college hockey circles for several months -- that the Badgers have been rocking the boat in the WCHA, examining alternative options to the league.

The Badgers would like to start a Big Ten Hockey Conference along with Minnesota and Central Collegiate Hockey Association schools Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. There would have to be at least one other addition to make it a six-team league, the minimum for an NCAA tournament bid.

Wisconsin told the State Journal newspaper that a Big Ten conference would stabilize and regionalize the sport. However, it very likely could do the opposite and Minnesota wants no part of it.

"I don't think it would be good for college hockey," Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. "We're a regional sport. To think that some day there are going to be 150 college hockey teams. . . that's just not going to happen.

"We have a great league to play in right now. There are a lot of outstanding teams in the WCHA. Our league really shows diversity of the sport. We have D-III, D-II and D-I teams. The common thread is that hockey is a front-line sport in all of those schools. That's where they put their resources. That's where they want to be successful."

One college hockey source said that the Big Ten concept has come up for more than 25 years. Different schools have pushed the issue at different times. This year, it is Wisconsin doing it.

Ohio State also is open to the idea, but the other three schools have not gotten behind it. Minnesota has been the most outspoken against it. Talks haven't gotten very far and it doesn't appear they'll go further anytime soon.

Ramifications

Besides the fact that a Big Ten league could be damaging to WCHA and CCHA schools left behind -- perhaps forcing some already-financially-troubled schools to cut hockey -- it may not be of great benefit to those included in the league.

A six-team league would amount to a 20-game conference schedule, leaving 16 nonconference games to be nailed down. That would be a challenge and would amount to a bunch of non-marquee games against obscure opponents.

It also could do away with some traditional hockey rivalries -- ones that Lucia says the Gophers relish.

"We have so many good rivalries in the WCHA," Lucia said. "And we understand that we are very successful in our fans, support from universities and schools and commitment from the programs."

One possibility is that Wisconsin is looking to distance itself from programs that don't have big-time football or basketball schools, like UND, Colorado College, Denver, St. Cloud State and Minnesota-Duluth. Wisconsin's athletic director, Barry Alvarez, played football in the Big Eight Conference and coached football in the Big Ten.

The one thing that seems to be clear, however, is that the long-rumored and long-discussed Big Ten Hockey Conference concept is not going away anytime soon.

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