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ND hockey sets new precedent

Observer Editorial Board | Friday, October 7, 2011

Notre Dame announced Wednesday its top-ranked hockey team would join the Hockey East conference for the 2013-14 season. The announcement carries effects far beyond the rink, and sets lofty precedents for the University to follow as college sports enter an uncertain time.

With the Central Collegiate Hockey Association disbanding after this season, Notre Dame Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick faced a decision: Join another conference or set the Irish hockey team independent of all ties. In many respects, it appears Swarbrick chose the former, while enjoying the luxuries of the latter nonetheless.

NBC Sports announced at the Wednesday press conference it had brought hockey into its ongoing broadcast deal with the Irish. While details of the deal were not announced — Swarbrick said they only had been “outlined” — Irish coach Jeff Jackson hinted Notre Dame could possibly have all of its home games aired nationally on either NBC or Versus. No collegiate hockey program in the country currently has a deal in that stratosphere. In fact, many NHL teams would drool at the prospect.

“The University of Notre Dame’s hockey team will have a more robust television platform than any hockey team in the country,” Swarbrick said matter-of-factly.

Combined with the opening of the Compton Family Ice Arena in exactly two weeks, just in time for the rabid crowds descending on campus for the football game against USC, the Irish hockey team has established itself as a national power off the ice, along with its recent dominance on the ice.

A state-of-the art arena and a television deal were once the sole property of the football team, and the former could be strongly debated. But suddenly Swarbrick and Jackson have maneuvered hockey into that realm.

The fact of the matter is, both basketball programs are on a similar level, both soccer programs are not far behind, and neither is the men’s lacrosse team. And while it does not receive much publicity, the Irish fencing team is the reason Grace Hall’s most prominent feature remains lit.

Notre Dame athletics extend far beyond the football field. So, what is to come of them if, or perhaps more accurately when, the Big East conference falls apart? After recent departures by Pittsburgh and Syracuse, rumors circulated of the Big East recruiting Navy and Army to its ranks. To date, these appear to have been unfounded.

On Thursday, another member of the Big East left for greener pastures, without ever competing in the Big East. TCU had signed on to begin play in football next season, but has now agreed to void that contract with a $5 million fee and instead become the 10th team in the Big 12.

Only six remaining Big East schools field Division I football teams. The Big 12 reportedly is considering one of those, Louisville, as a replacement if Missouri were to depart the Big 12.

At that point, football may be removed from the Big East repertoire. Football is without a doubt, even in the Big East, the bread-winner. Without it, the Big East would not likely survive for long, no matter how strong its basketball tradition may be.

If this worst-case scenario were to come to be, all of Notre Dame’s olympic sports would be without a home. It is unlikely any standing conference would take them without also wanting Notre Dame to join in hockey and football. The Big Ten specifically would insist upon both.

This week’s hockey announcements show Notre Dame will not yield to these demands. They also show Notre Dame may not have to. If the hockey program can find such a lucrative situation, Swarbrick will need to do so for the other sports as well.

The precedent has been set.