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Talented Big Ten hockey seeks breakthrough

03/21/2017, 12:49am EDT
By By NICHOLAS PIOTROWICZ BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Sparsely attended conference tournament at Joe Louis Arena


Ohio State’s Dakota Joshua knocks the puck in for a goal against Penn State's Peyton Jones on Jan. 21. The Big Ten’s creation all but ended traditional regional rivalries, such as splitting the Buckeyes from Miami and Bowling Green. ABBY DREY/CENTRE DAILY

DETROIT — The Big Ten’s arrival was the earthquake before college hockey’s conference realignment tsunami.

The only traditional football or basketball conference with a presence in college hockey, the Big Ten is four years into the new world that it created, and it’s still searching for its major breakthrough.

For whatever reason, the league — which was not exactly welcomed with open arms to college hockey in the first place — has not captured the hearts of fans even though the Big Ten believes it is putting a quality, balanced product on the ice.

“I’ve seen outstanding offensive hockey games. I’ve seen end-to-end action. I’ve seen brilliant skill level,” said first-year Wisconsin coach Tony Granato, a longtime NHL player and coach.

“So the teaching part from our standpoint, we’re a development league. We’re trying to develop kids to play in the NHL, and I think to do that, how we play and especially how our conference plays, letting kids play, letting kids make plays, that’s how you develop. And I think our league does a heck of a job doing that, and it’s exciting.”

To Granato’s point, the Big Ten’s six hockey members have accounted for 40 NHL draft picks in the past three entry drafts, including 10 in the first two rounds.

The league on Sunday set a new best with three NCAA tournament qualifiers — Minnesota, Penn State, and Ohio State — and the Big Ten scored more goals per game than any conference in college hockey this season.

Penn State hockey has been one of the better stories in college athletics by starting a program from scratch and turning itself into a contender in the span of five years.

“A lot of schools have a lot of history. This hockey program has been around not very long,” Nittany Lions goaltender Peyton Jones said Friday. “All the things that we’re accomplishing right now is history for the school. First time it’s been done. It’s pretty exciting for us.”

Despite the individual tradition and solid home attendance of many its programs, Big Ten hockey has yet to take off as the league hoped.

The Big Ten Network does not subscribe to Nielsen services, but college hockey traditionally has not scored well on TV, and attendance for the conference tournament last weekend at Joe Louis Arena was abysmal.

The league reported a total attendance of just under 11,800 people for all five tournament games combined, about five thousand less than what the Great Lakes Invitational drew for its semifinals in the same building.

The games themselves were thrilling — Penn State won in double-overtime on back-to-back nights to win its first-ever tournament title — but the atmosphere suggested a few hundred people had gathered to watch a PowerPoint presentation for freshman economics.

Joe Louis Arena was mostly empty all weekend. At one point during Friday’s semifinals, someone hurled a paper airplane out of the press box some 20 rows into the second level, and the projectile never came within 200 feet of anyone.

Granato, a former Detroit Red Wings assistant, nodded to the emptiness when asked about his return to Detroit.

“Well, I would like to have seen a few more people in the seats, but I loved being back in the building,” he said.

The Big Ten is not likely to find sympathy in the tribalistic world of college hockey, which it undoubtedly changed.

Natural gas tycoon Terry Pegula donated more than $100 million to Penn State in 2010, allowing the Nittany Lions to transition from club to Division I — which meant the Big Ten had the required six programs necessary to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State fled the Central Collegiate Hockey Association to join the Big Ten, and Minnesota and Wisconsin bolted from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

The CCHA — beloved in much of the upper Midwest — dissolved, while the WCHA now exists as the hockey equivalent of a mid-major basketball conference.

The Big Ten’s creation all but ended traditional regional rivalries, splitting Ohio State from Miami and Bowling Green, separating UM and MSU from the four Michigan schools that had been in the CCHA, and wedged a conference gap between Minnesota and rivals Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota.

The Big Ten will add a seventh team next season when Notre Dame — also a tournament team this year — will leave the Hockey East for a much more geographically friendly conference.

The Big Ten landed three teams in the 16-team field with another on the way, which Minnesota coach Don Lucia said he took as “a good, positive sign,” for the Big Ten’s future.

“You see some of the highest-scoring teams in college hockey playing in the Big Ten right now,” Lucia said. “They’re able to attract some high-skill players that they can make those plays on the power play.”

Nothing commands respect quite like winning, and Big Ten programs are after their first title since the conference’s inception.

No current Big Ten team has won a championship since Michigan State in 2007.

Contentious as it may have been at the beginning, the Big Ten believes the first four years have laid a foundation to become a consistent power in college hockey.

“I think we’ve got — I can’t compare it to the other leagues — but I know we’ve got a premier college hockey league, and our players, there [are] elite players on every team that will play in the NHL for a long, long time,” said Granato said. “And I think it’s very competitive. I think it’s great hockey.”

Contact Nicholas Piotrowicz at: npiotrowicz@theblade.com, 724-6110, or on Twitter @NickPiotrowicz

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