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Irish moving from Hockey East to Big Ten in 2017

| Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Notre Dame is joining the Big Ten — in one sport at least.

As originally reported by the Chicago Tribune, Minneapolis Star Tribune and USCHO, the Irish will join the Big Ten on the ice beginning with the 2017-18 season.

Notre Dame began play in Hockey East during the 2013-14 campaign after spending the previous 16 seasons in the CCHA.

The Big Ten first sponsored a separate hockey conference starting that same year, and it is comprised of its six schools that support a Division I hockey program: Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Penn State.

The Irish, Badgers and Gophers played together in the WCHA from 1971 through 1981, while the Wolverines, Spartans and Buckeyes were members of the CCHA with Notre Dame until joining the Big Ten.

Irish sophomore center Jake Evans skates up the ice during Notre Dame's 6-4 loss to Northeastern on March 12 at Compton Family Ice Arena. The Irish are set to join the Big Ten for hockey starting in the 2017-18 season.Michael Yu | The Observer
Irish sophomore center Jake Evans skates up the ice during Notre Dame’s 6-4 loss to Northeastern on March 12 at Compton Family Ice Arena. The Irish are set to join the Big Ten for hockey starting in the 2017-18 season.

Notre Dame senior associate athletic director Tom Nevala told the Minneapolis Star Tribune the school saw the jump to the Big Ten as a way to return to Notre Dame’s traditional geographic base while maintaining the level of play found in Hockey East.

“The competition has been excellent in the Hockey East and in the Big Ten, and that’s where we want to be competing, with the best,” Nevala said. “There is great excitement because we’re renewing the rivalries that we cherish, and it will be great to go to those campuses on a regular basis.”

The move returns the Irish to a league that fits them better geographically: Despite playing in a conference centered in New England, this year’s team roster contains only one player from the region: walk-on senior goaltender Nick Stasack is from West Springfield, Massachusetts. Freshmen defenseman Dennis Gilbert and left wing Joe Wegworth both hail from nearby New York, a state no Hockey East teams call home.

Notre Dame’s 2015-16 roster is comprised of eight players from Minnesota, four from Illinois, two from Michigan and one each from Wisconsin and Iowa, all states in the heart of Big Ten country.

Since the Big Ten began play, it has sought a way to expand on its six teams, but no other program in the conference has seriously considered making the jump to Division I. Nebraska and Illinois both field club teams, but both programs would require a large increase in funding and upgrades to the team facilities, according to Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune.

The Big Ten added Johns Hopkins to its men’s lacrosse conference for the 2015 season, and the Blue Jays became the first program from a non-Big Ten school to play in a Big Ten-sponsored conference. The Irish will become the second team to fit this category when they begin play in 2017-18.

Notre Dame’s hockey program began as a club team in 1912 and continued on and off at that level before making the jump to Division I in 1968 with head coach Lefty Smith at the helm, a position he held until 1987. The Irish originally played as an independent until they joined the WCHA in 1971, where they spent the next 10 seasons before moving to the newly-formed CCHA. Notre Dame dropped ice hockey as a varsity sport during the 1983-84 season, when the squad returned to club status, but then the program returned to Division I competition and the CCHA the following year.

After the CCHA began to fall apart with the departure of Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State for the newly-formed Big Ten league leading up to the 2013-2014 campaign, Notre Dame announced it would move to Hockey East, where it has played the last three seasons. The Irish claimed the final CCHA tournament title in 2013 before major reshuffling of college hockey west of the Appalachian Mountains drastically altered the composition of the WCHA and signaled both the end of the CCHA and the start of Big Ten hockey and the NCHC.

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