When the Big Ten announced its preseason coaches’ poll for the coming hockey season, more than a few observers — especially Penn State fans — expressed surprise that the Nittany Lions were fourth on the list.
Where was the respect for last year’s tournament champion and NCAA quarterfinalist?
“The strength of the conference is really growing right now,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said Thursday morning in a conference call of Big Ten coaches. “The conference is going to be ultra-competitive. I know when I sat down to try to figure out my ranking, I didn’t know who to put where, to be quite honest.”
Lucia’s team was chosen as the favorite, but most of the other teams in the Big Ten also bring back piles of talent — plus Notre Dame begins its first season as an associate member for hockey. The Fighting Irish skated in the Frozen Four last spring and were second in that preseason poll.
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“For a college athlete and a player, you want to have teams that you play every night that are competitive, that it’s exciting to get fired up for the games because you know it’s going to be a battle,” said Wisconsin coach Tony Granato, whose team was third in the preseason poll. “That’s what our athletes in our conference are going to see on a week-to-week basis.”
Lucia said it was discussed years ago when the Big Ten added hockey to bring in Notre Dame, and he and several other coaches expressed a desire for one more program to be added for a more balanced eight teams. (There are currently seven teams.)
The rise of the Nittany Lions into national contenders, along with Ohio State also making the 16-team NCAA tournament field last season, pushed the Big Ten to the level many college hockey observers expected — and some maybe even feared — when Penn State announced seven years ago it would be adding hockey as a varsity sport. That move helped prompt the Big Ten to add hockey.
“It’s a very exciting time because of some of the success that we have,” said Nittany Lions coach Guy Gadowsky, whose season opens Oct. 6 at Clarkson. “We want to continue on that route, but also with adding Notre Dame in the Big Ten, I think the league is getting tougher and tougher and better and better.”
The regular season also will have a new interruption come February — the Olympics. NHL players will not be taking part in the winter games in South Korea, so national team rosters will be filled from a variety of other places. There will still be a number of pro players taking part from other leagues around the world, but there also will be some college athletes donning the red, white and blue.
It will not be the same situation as decades ago, famously played out with an all-college roster leading the U.S. to the 1980 gold medal. Unlike when the NHL was involved, there will be no breaks in college schedules and there will be little U.S. team preparation time before the Olympics begin. Any college players involved will only be missing a couple weeks from school for the Olympic hockey games Feb. 14-25. Those dates come right before the start of conference tournaments, but Granato, who also will be the U.S. coach, was looking at the benefits not only for the players but also the university and college hockey.
“Your job as college coaches is help them be ready for that chance and give them an opportunity when they’re ready for it,” he said. “When they’re ready to have a special chance to move on or play in an Olympic games, as a coach and as a program, you should be excited for them and think of all the positives that will bring to your program.”
Granato’s view also was, if the players are good enough to be on an Olympic team, then teams should be in good enough shape to withstand the two-week absence. He had a similar view of his Badger team while he will be away.
“I don’t think our program will miss a beat,” Granato said. “I think we’ll be well enough prepared heading into that stretch that not having the coach behind the bench is going to make a big deal.”
Along with the new team added to the conference with the Fighting Irish, both Michigan and Michigan State have new coaches. Danton Cole will lead the Spartans, using his time as coach with the U.S. developmental program and Michigan State roots to try to return it to the level when he was a player.
The Wolverines will be led by Mel Pearson, who was at Michigan Tech for six years. He replaces retired legend Red Berenson after he racked up 848 wins and a pair of national titles.
“It’s a new beginning,” Pearson said. “We haven’t had a change here in 30-some years with Coach Berenson. It’s all fresh, it’s all new.”
With the seven-team conference, creating the 24-game league schedules became a little more challenging, and some typical paths had to be altered. In the past, there were a handful of nonconference games at the outset to help ease into the year. This year, the regular season’s first weekend has Wisconsin meeting Ohio State, and Penn State heads to Minnesota for the second weekend of the season.
“It really gets the fans excited, it gets you excited,” Granato said, “because you know the meaning of the games is that much more important as the season goes along.”
Big Ten preseason coaches’ poll
2. Notre Dame
4. Penn State
5. Ohio State
7. Michigan State