It will be difficult to watch the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team in its next assignment and not think about how its world is going to change soon.
The 18th-ranked Badgers face NCAA Division I independent Penn State tonight and Monday night in a non-conference series at the Kohl Center.
Next season, these teams will meet as members of the newly sanctioned Big Ten Conference. Joining them will be Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota and Ohio State.
Next season, the Big Ten will be front and center as college hockey, all 59 programs, wades into realignment. While the Central Collegiate Hockey Association disbands and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and Hockey East Association reshuffle their decks, the Big Ten and National Collegiate Hockey Conference will debut.
Next season, non-traditional Sunday-Monday series like this one will be more common, though certainly not the norm, as the Big Ten pieces together a 20-game regular-season schedule that will involve all teams meeting four times.
The opening round of Big Ten games will likely be played 10 months from now, in late November, so where do things stand on the most critical issues?
Jennifer Heppel, the Big Ten associate commissioner overseeing the new men’s hockey product, said officials at the member schools have been instructed to cordon off weekly windows from Thursday to Monday in order to best coordinate schedules with men’s and women’s basketball.
“The majority will be a Friday-Saturday night,” she said of league series next season. “But, periodically, in order to take advantage of coordinated scheduling with basketball, it could be another (slot).”
Series will continue to be played back-to-back nights, though there might be some afternoon starts, especially for Saturday-Sunday series. Heppel said teams will not play more than two straight Big Ten series on the road.
A variety of forces will dictate the new scheduling model, including academic commitments, facilities and geography.
For example, Heppel said no league games will be played during final exams and that effectively takes the first three weeks of December out of the mix in 2013-14. The first six or seven weeks of the regular season will be devoted to non-conference games, though they could be fit in during the holiday break if a school so chooses. Heppel said there won’t be a specific coordinated start date for Big Ten play because of the staggered semester exams.
Meanwhile, four schools have hockey-only facilities — Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota and Penn State — while Ohio State and UW must coordinate their shared-use buildings with a variety of parties.
It remains to be seen how that reality drives matchups given that Minnesota-UW and Michigan-Michigan State series have different travel components compared to, say, the Badgers at Penn State.
UW coach Mike Eaves said the odd Sunday-Monday series — the one at hand was driven by the WIAA state individual wrestling tournament being held at the Kohl Center — is OK even though it stretches into a work week, but “it can’t be every other (series) because of our fan base.”
A driving force behind the new scheduling model is the Big Ten Network, which intends to show all the tournament games from the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., next March and televise in the neighborhood of 30 to 40 matches overall, according to Heppel.
“We want to maximize television, but television doesn’t drive all this decision-making,” she said.
Sean Frazier, the UW deputy athletic director who oversees men’s and women’s hockey, said the top of his current priority list for the Big Ten is officiating.
“Making sure that we have qualified people that can fill the slots (and) cover our events,” he said.
CCHA supervisor of officials Steve Piotrowski will oversee that area and has been in contact with Big Ten coaches about the best candidates, but he won’t begin his assignment full time until his current stint is over later this year.
“We expect to have the best officiating program in college hockey,” Heppel said.