With the recent success of Arizona State University’s NCAA hockey team (as well as University of Oregon’s club hockey team), it’s time for an in-depth look at the potential for PAC-12 hockey.
A few years ago, Arizona State came out of seemingly nowhere and announced their decision to elevate their club hockey team to the NCAA. Lacking a conference affiliation while hosting games at a rink with minimal capacity, they were expected to flounder for a while before being taken seriously. Almost immediately, though, they started attracting talented recruits and fielding a competitive team. They are a virtual lock to make the NCAA tournament this season in only their 3rd full year as a D-1 program (their first season included club and D-3 opponents). During the press conference for the announcement, they stated their expectation for other PAC-12 schools to follow suit. Later in this article, the hockey situation of all PAC-12 schools will be examined individually, but first, a quick synopsis of some factors in college hockey expanding westward.
For a university to add NCAA hockey, the biggest hurdle is money. Costs include scholarships, equipment, an arena, an endowment for operating expenses, staff wages, and travel for competition as well as recruiting. Arizona State was able to do it with ~$30 million; Penn State required $100 million. For perspective, Minnesota State University-Moorhead tried to raise $35 million earlier this decade to build a D-1 program, but came up short in fundraising efforts, so the $30-35 million range is a reasonable target.
Skipping the arena aspect is tempting for potential teams looking to cut costs, but an on-campus arena is crucial for student engagement in college hockey. Large, empty buildings are not conducive to an exciting atmosphere, so an ideal rink would seat between 3,000 and 6,000, based on campus enrollment size and the surround metro population. There are obviously exceptions, but even in hockey-mad Minnesota, the Golden Gophers are struggling to fill in half of their 10,000 seats this season. Location is also a bigger factor than most observers realize. Before the University of Nebraska-Omaha recently unveiled Baxter Arena on campus, their off-campus rink at a pro-size facility in downtown Omaha was cited as a knock against them by rivals schools in recruiting. Side note: Vancouver, WA native Riley Alferd is a Senior at UNO, starting his college career the year Baxter opened. That said, UNO’s use of off-campus rinks in the nearly 20 years prior to the new facility shows there are multiple paths to D-1 hockey; no two teams will follow the same blueprint.
California’s Hockey Boom
With hockey’s explosion in California over the past twenty years, we are seeing more and more recruits coming from both SoCal and the Bay Area. Beau Bennett, Rocco Grimaldi and Emerson Etem are just some of the blue chip prospects to get drafted in the first or second round out of California in the past decade. Bennett even tweeted (tongue-in-cheek of course) his “commitment” to ASU immediately after they announced their elevated status. Another California native, Cam York, is expected to get picked in the first round in this summer’s upcoming draft.
Other California natives have found success at the NCAA level in recent years despite not being drafted in the NHL, including Patrick Khorodorenko, Trevor Moore, Austin Ortega, and Will Johnson. Beyond NCAA, the Portland Winterhawks’ roster included some Californians lately, including Chase De Leo and Miles Koules, and their decision to forgo the NCAA may have stemmed from a desire to stay on the west coast. All of these skilled players point to a potential goldmine for ASU in the near future, and enough local talent for multiple PAC-12 teams.
Another decision to factor in when considering college hockey is the impact is has on Title 9, which requires equal athletic opportunities for each gender. Adding women’s hockey may not be the best option; the University of North Dakota recently cut their women’s program for budget reasons. Women’s lacrosse and field hockey are less expensive alternatives, and with women’s teams in each sport already existing out west, the infrastructure is more supportive.
The two most recent additions to NCAA hockey, ASU and Penn State, were both successful at the ACHA D-1 level before transitioning to NCAA. Only a few of the PAC-12 schools are currently at that level; the PAC-8 conference is ACHA D-2. Aspiring to ACHA D-1 is an important step on the road to NCAA hockey.
Now, without further ado, here are capsules for all remaining PAC-12 teams (in no specific order):
The Buffaloes are not mentioned often when college hockey expansion is discussed, but they are definitely a ‘sleeper’ candidate to add a team. Currently in ACHA D-1, only Arizona and UNLV have a current roster better situated for the move. They also have a rink on campus in their student recreation center that could be used indefinitely for practice, as well as for the short term while the spectator arena is built/renovated. With a major airport and three current NCAA D-1 programs in the vicinity (Colorado College, Air Force Academy and University of Denver), their travel costs would be lower than for other PAC-12 schools as well. Boulder could realistically be the home of the NCAA’s next hockey out west. If/when that happens, expect Colorado State to perform due diligence as well; CU vs. CSU is a top rivalry in club hockey.
After their recent addition of men’s lacrosse, Utah is more likely to focus on the recent addition to their athletic department than explore adding more programs. Much like how Arizona State added hockey, an affluent parent of a player on the club team donating the necessary funds is how they moved up to NCAA status. Their club team competes at ACHA’s D-1 level, but there are no arenas near campus to allow an easy transition to NCAA.
Frequently cited in message boards discussing college hockey expansion due to its relationship with Nike founder Phil Knight, the Ducks are a hockey program on the rise after winning the PAC-8 club hockey championship this year, earning a berth in the regional tournament. Due to the proximity to Portland, the Ducks’ potential for NCAA hockey will be discussed at length in an article of its own in the near future. The coaches were more than willing to chat about the transition for the article, and they are fully committed to the cause. Eugene is on its way to becoming a new hockey hotbed.
With the closest rink to Corvallis located in Eugene, the Beavers have never had a club hockey team. They are currently the least likely of the PAC-12 schools to ever field a hockey team in the NCAA, barring a generous and unexpected gift to the school.
Between their massive endowment, academic reputation and aristocratic alumni, there isn’t a school anywhere that could build a competitive team quicker. Plenty of people affiliated with the school have the ability to create a team with the stroke of a pen. Their club team is known to practice at the private home ice rink of billionaire alumni Scott McNealy, a lifelong hockey fan. Should they add a team, he will undoubtedly be involved.
Located near downtown Los Angeles, people would expect them to be able to use the Staples Center for a rink, but given that three pro teams already occupy it, that’s not feasible. The club team has played rivalry games against UCLA there, but their current home ice is in Anaheim, 30 miles away from campus through LA’s notorious traffic. With a legendary alumni network and numerous wealthy graduates and boosters, it’s entirely possible there’s someone willing to put the money down for them to start up. They are rumored to have considered and possibly already utilized the NHL’s feasibility study grants, provided by the league to assist universities explore the possibility of adding college hockey.
The Bruin’s home ice is in Burbank, 20 miles away from their campus. While their rivalry games against USC at the Staples Center are a hit, they would need the same financial windfall as the rest of the schools, and given the University of California’s budget issues, it may be poorly received by the community to put college athletics before academics at a public institute.
The Wildcats are undoubtedly jealous of their biggest rival’s success in hockey, knowing that U of A also possesses the “party school” atmosphere and envious weather that makes ASU so appealing. Their ACHA team is a perennial contender at the D-1 level, and they already sell a good amount of tickets at the Tucson Convention Center, a 6,800 seat arena only 2 miles from their campus. The arena is shared with the AHL’s Tucson Roadrunners, resulting in far better amenities available to their club team than anywhere else out west. Their transition would be less expensive and likely smoother than any other PAC-12 team at this point.
Much like how UNLV hockey wasn’t on anybody’s radar until the Golden Knights came to town, Seattle’s expansion franchise has suddenly flooded UW’s club team with attention. Both the KeyArena and the proposed practice facility are within five miles of campus, so should elevating the University’s program be even an afterthought to the expansion team, the locations are feasible if not ideal. It’s also not unrealistic to think that with the amount of capital floating around Seattle these days that someone would be willing to build a rink on campus. Hockey fever has gripped Seattle, so keep an eye on their program over the next few years.
Despite the proximity to Canada, Pullman is not exactly a hockey town. The only rink in the area is across the border in Idaho, closer to the University of Idaho than to Wazzu. They are another longshot; consistently fielding a team is the first step.
Considering their Athletic Department’s finances after the debacle surrounding their new football stadium, it is hard to imagine Cal getting NCAA hockey anytime soon, which is unfortunate as it would be an easy school for recruiting given its stature in the world. The nearest rink to Berkeley is in downtown Oakland, which is a quick BART ride away, but with no prospects for a new sheet anywhere near campus, they are yet another longshot.
Despite not being a part of the PAC-12, UNLV is vocally working towards going D-1 in the near future, and would be a natural fit for the conference. With some club team funding provided by the Englestad family (the same benefactors who provided $100 million for the University of North Dakota’s fabled rink), as well as support from the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights (including their own locker rooms at the Knights’ practice facility), they could be the second team out west to go D-1. They only recently joined ACHA’s D-1, and are already a top team at that level. As a conference affiliate, they would be helpful in getting the PAC-12 to the six members threshold for the accompanying auto-bid into the NCAA tournament.
After all of the wild speculation in this article, here’s a guess at what the PAC-12 hockey conference will start with whenever it launches:
Make sure to tune in March 29th/30th for the Sun Devils’ first NCAA tournament appearance. If you’re reading this, you probably have a good reason to be rooting for them! As for the Ducks, their first game in the ACHA West Regional tournament is March 1st. Stay tuned for the aforementioned in-depth article about University of Oregon hockey as well. Playoff hockey season is here, comrades!