With Penn State and Arizona State making the jump from Division I club team to Division I in the NCAA, it makes some wonder who is going to be the next team to make the big jump to the NCAA and who is really able to make the jump with few stumbles along the way.
During this year’s NHL Draft, the University of Illinois announced that they were the first team to participate in the newly sponsored research for the feasibility of more college teams being brought up to the Division I level of hockey. It would make sense for Illinois to be the first to be in this program, as the state is surrounded by plenty of college hockey and would have a built-in conference alignment in the Big Ten once they move into D1. In the ACHA, Illinois went 13-11-3 in 2016-17 and finished the season being ranked 13th in the final rankings. That ranking is up from their 17th final ranking in 2015-16 and even with their final 2014-15 ranking at 13th. Illinois has been a club team for 60 years and with the Big Ten finally getting a hockey conference, it could be time for them to make the jump to the big show.
That said, I wholly expect that the next team to get funding to see if their program is viable for NCAA D1 status will be the Naval Academy. You can bet that the NHL and NHLPA will announce that during the Stadium Series weekend in Annapolis, as well.
The location of Illinois would be perfect when you look at the map of the NCAA. It’s clear to see that if you’re a D1 hockey school, you’re probably in Northeast corridor or the upper Midwest. Only two of the 60 NCAA D1 schools are south of the Mason-Dixon line (Miami-Ohio, Alabama-Huntsville) and seven teams are west of Minnesota (North Dakota, Colorado College, Denver, Air Force, Arizona State, Nebraska-Omaha, Alaska-Anchorage, Alaska-Fairbanks) with the two Alaska teams on thin-ice with keeping their teams due to financial reasons.
With the look at Navy, the move would help the NCAA establish a move towards the under-represented Mid-Atlantic region of the US. On top of that, the team would have already have the two other service schools– Air Force and Army– as their rivals. McMullin Arena may be one of the smallest of the NCAA, but they would be in line with what Robert Morris University has with the majority of the stands being on one side of the rink rather than a bowl seating situation.
There are some issues with Navy getting in and being competitive from the start, with recruiting being the biggest issue, which are the same issues that Army and Air Force deal with when it comes to bringing in the top players into the program. With players having to do service time after their college career is done, some may be hesitant to joining the team. This is something that former Army goalie Parker Gahagen is dealing with, as he signed an amateur try-out with the San Jose Sharks, but is not looking into whether or not he could defer his service time (a minimum of two years) to move on with his NHL career. The same thing happened with Zach McKelvie after he finished his Army career, but had his pro hockey career stalled due to having to finish his active duty time in the Army.
However, the move to the Mid-Atlantic region for NCAA D1 hockey would be great for the high school scene in and around that area. While there are great club teams who play in that area and have a history behind them, it’s an underserviced area of the US when it comes to the prospects of high school players playing close to home. Especially with Alex Ovechkin having an impact in registration for youth players in the Maryland/DC/Virginia area, you’d think the NCAA would want to tap that market, too. Both Sam Anas (Quinnipiac) and Jamie Fritsch (New Hampshire) were Maryland kids who were able to break out and have D1 careers, but for the most part, a lot of players in the area look to the club team’s D1 or hope for a NCAA Division III school to go to– which isn’t bad, but you’d think they’d want to strive for move and try to get that boost to D1.
While Navy would be a good fit to the NCAA D1 pool, the University of Delaware could be another option. While not the most sexy of choices, the pool of players they can pull from would be tremendous as they would have Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey players to recruit and be close to home base. Delaware’s D1 club program has been a model for consistency and has won an ACHA National Championship in 2012, the first for the program. The team would fall into that Northeast corridor area of travel, but be a little closer for kids in surrounding states who don’t have D1 college hockey within a reasonable driving distance. While they did run into trouble last season, having to pull out of the season due to school sanctions, the team was reinstated by the school without having to miss a season because of said sanctions.
This whole scenario doesn’t include the growth of hockey out west, especially in California and Arizona. With Arizona State making the jump, they may have started a westward shift, but without any club teams (sans University of Arizona) being all that prominent in Division 1 of club hockey, it will take a little more time to grow the college game out there. The whole point is that right now, NCAA hockey is a big area of development for NHL teams and more and more kids from different areas are getting involved. It’s up to the NCAA to maybe explore harder into what they need to do to expand past the 60 teams they have now and make it viable. Assistance from the NHL and NHLPA will help greatly, but the NCAA can’t rely on those entities, as they will only look for area that would also help in NHL markets rather than outliers.