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MSU part of changing of the guard for Big Ten hockey

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — Some of the six hockey teams in the Big Ten Conference are not ranked as high in the nation this March as many of their fans have come to expect.

Some fans say they miss some of the old Central Collegiate Hockey Association rivalries they came to expect over the years.

Less than half of the 14 institutions in the Big Ten participate in the sport.

But in its second year, with the conference hockey tournament beginning Thursday at Joe Louis Arena, coaches, administrators and television executives are proclaiming it a success, saying growing pains are occurring naturally and will be remedied with time.

Meanwhile, on the last weekend of the season, four of the six teams were vying for the top spot in the standings, and they all played each other.

Now at stake is an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.

“I would say it’s gone very well,” said Red Berenson, in his 30th season as coach at Michigan.

“The Big Ten has taken on hockey and done a terrific job with their administration. The Big Ten Network, obviously, they help promote the league. And then, the competition on the ice has been excellent. It’s been a lot of improvement, a lot of parity.”

As the former commissioner of the now-defunct CCHA from 1998-2011, Michigan State coach Tom Anastos can view the performance of the infant conference from both perspectives.

“It’s everything I would have expected it to be, and probably then some,” he said.

“Clearly, the television visibility that it’s brought to the sport is unmatched in college hockey history. I think the fans have embraced all of the Big Ten schools coming into our building, and that’s been good for them, too.”

Berenson and Anastos echoed others who say the performance nationally is down in part because of the coincidences of cyclical roster development at the schools, especially Michigan and Wisconsin, where the rosters are both young and developing, and that some of the old CCHA rivalries eventually will return as part of the nonconference schedule.

“It’s not often Wisconsin has a losing record, in the last 10 years,” Berenson said. “And it’s unusual that Michigan is not in the big picture, or Minnesota.

“And so, you’re seeing the emergence now of Ohio State and Penn State and Michigan State.

“I think we’re all pretty close. But nobody’s running away with it, and that’s probably why none of us are as visible in the big picture.”

Anastos said some of the CCHA rivalries will work back into the nonconference schedule after the reorganization of college hockey conferences nationally.

“Over a period of time, from a scheduling perspective, we’ll be able to renew some of those old rivalries,” Anastos said.

“I think one of the reasons that kind of drifted away is because when all this came about not every league settled. And so when you went out to start your scheduling process, it’s not a year-to-year thing, it’s a couple of years in advance.”

Television is important for growth, and the six teams have a huge platform. This season, games appeared on ESPN, regional Fox channels including FSD and the Big Ten network, an array Anastos termed unprecedented.

“I’d rather not get into the size of the audience, other than to say it’s our focus to continue to grow it, which we’ve done to a certain extent, especially in Detroit with Michigan and Michigan State going well in conference play this year,” said Michael Calderon, BTN vice president of programming and digital media.

Calderon said there was an increase from Year 1 to Year 2 in the Detroit market, and that Minnesota remains strong, too.

Penn State is a young program. Play at Ohio State regressed a bit. Meanwhile, the network broadcasts to markets that include the 14-member institutions despite the fact only six play hockey.

“So, inherently, less than half the fan base has a voting interest,” Calderon said.

There are no plans to expand the conference, although Illinois and Iowa both feature strong men’s club programs.

As for the tournament itself, Michigan enters with the best offense in the country, but as a young team struggling defensively all season.

It plays on Wisconsin, which has had an off-year, Thursday for the right to play Michigan State on Friday.

Berenson faces not making the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive year after garnering a berth in 22 straight.

“Well, I think we’ve always put pressure on ourselves to be in the Tournament and maybe we took it for granted, when it was over 20 years,” he said. “This is big for our team.”

Michigan State has forged a formidable defensive team from a solid roster, and defense often wins championships, especially in hockey. Its sprint to second place in the conference the last 14 games was remarkable.

“We’re situated pretty darn good from the perspective of a team with growing confidence,” Anastos said. “We’re probably playing as well as we have all season long.”

Meanwhile, Minnesota, which finished on top of the regular-season standings, like Michigan State, has drawn a bye into the semifinals.

Minnesota plays the Ohio State-Penn State winner Thursday.