July 1 is the kickoff to the second half of a calendar year, or a new fiscal year for many school districts, companies and some government jobs.
For Notre Dame this year, July 1 marked a relatively quiet entrance into the Big Ten Conference — in hockey, that is.
After four seasons in the 12-team Hockey East, the Notre Dame hockey program officially was welcomed this weekend as the newest member of the seven-team Big Ten on the ice rink.
Popular opinion years ago held that Notre Dame and the Big Ten were an “all or nothing” proposition. Either the Fighting Irish would join the league in all sports — most notably football — or they could forget about any association with the league. That’s part of why Notre Dame joined the ACC in 2013. There, the Irish found an excellent home for almost all of their Olympic Sports, but overall still maintained their coveted football independence. It is a “partial” football member that generally faces five ACC teams per year in the sport as a form of compromise, but it is not involved in the league standings.
Another exception to the ACC affiliation was hockey, mainly because the league doesn’t carry hockey. Consequently, Notre Dame found a new home with Hockey East.
While the league was exceptional competitively, it was not practical from a travel/fiscal standpoint, nor in creating rivalries with buzz (other than traditional power Boston College). Weekend series’ against Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Merrimack, UMass, Northeastern, UMass Lowell et al are not going to generate the same type of enthusiasm at the Midwest school as when one says Michigan, Ohio State, Minnesota….
What evolved was a mutually beneficial union.
On Notre Dame’s side, the travel will be more regional and cost effective, and the rivals are much more recognized. For the Big Ten, it adds a marquee name to a conference that needed more than the six hockey members it had last year: Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin. The Big Ten did the same when it added the Johns Hopkins men’s and women’s lacrosse programs to the league as well to enhance it with more teams and star power.
Under head coach Jeff Jackson, Notre Dame has made it to the 16-team NCAA Tournament eight of his 12 years, highlighted by advancing to the Frozen Four three times, most recently this April.
Thus, the ideal “dual citizenship” remains for Notre Dame primarily in the ACC, but now also in the Big Ten. In terms of tradition, Big Ten hockey takes a back seat to no one. Michigan leads the nation with nine hockey national championships, while Wisconsin has six, Minnesota five and Michigan State three.
The Irish also have a past with most of their Big Ten hockey members. From 1971-81 in the WCHA, Notre Dame competed against fellow league members Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Then from 1992-2013 in the CCHA, the Irish were in the same conference with the Wolverines, Spartans and Ohio State.
Notre Dame will make its Big Ten hockey debut Nov. 3-4 with a series at Ohio State. The 24-game format in the league will end with the 2018 Big Ten Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament, to be held the first three weekends of March with all games taking place on the campus of the higher-seeded teams.
Is this a harbinger of Notre Dame someday joining the Big Ten in all sports? That does not appear to be the plan at all. Yet in the fluid shifting of leagues that has occurred in the NCAA in recent years, one can never say never.