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updated: 9/19/2013 8:17 PM

Big Ten hockey begins as sport enters new era

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AssociatedPress

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The Big Ten is ready to take the ice.

The venerable conference built by storied football programs is about to start its first sanctioned hockey season.

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"Big Ten anything is a big deal, no matter what sport it is, and it's an honor to be a part of such a prestigious league," said Penn State junior forward Tommy Olczyk.

Coaches and key players from all six teams assembled on Thursday at Xcel Energy Center, the site of the inaugural conference tournament from March 20-22. That event will alternate between St. Paul and Joe Louis Arena in Detroit in the coming years.

The Big Ten formation shook up the sport at the major college level, resulting in the creation of a second league (National Collegiate Hockey Conference), the dilution of one (Western Collegiate Hockey Association) and the extinction of another (Central Collegiate Hockey Association). But the coaches and players were naturally buzzing with excitement about the new setup, rather than lamenting the loss of some long-running conference rivalries.

"There is a little trepidation with some of the fans at times, but I do believe that they're going to see we're going to have at Minnesota the best of both worlds," Gophers coach Don Lucia said. "We're part of the Big Ten. We'll continue to play our in-state rivals, a lot of our former rivals from the WCHA over time, and I think it's going to be a very successful move for us in our program."

Lucia added: "After a few years, it becomes the new norm. Fans start to see the way the conferences are, and all of a sudden, you don't know any different."

Michigan coach Red Berenson, who played for the Wolverines in the late 1950s when they were in the WCHA with the Gophers, recalled a fierce rivalry with the potential for a modern renewal.

"Whenever we played Minnesota you could tell just from the fans it was like a Stanley Cup game, and I'm hoping that's what we get back into this conference," Berenson said.

The league's first official game will be on Oct. 10 when Michigan hosts Boston College, and the Big Ten Network is planning to show Friday night doubleheaders throughout the winter, the hallmark of the enhanced brand these programs are anticipating. Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State came from the CCHA, and Minnesota and Wisconsin left the WCHA. Penn State, which played as an independent in its inaugural season in the sport, is the upstart underdog.

"If we recruited you to come to Penn State, we believe you're someone hungry to accept that challenge," coach Guy Gadowsky said. "We don't know. Trust me, we're not naive. We understand very well how great the programs are in the Big Ten Conference."

With the visibility of the Big Ten Network, there's not much doubt about this six-team league becoming a financial success, even if purist fans will take a while to get over the change. There's an anxiety shared around the sport, though, about the viability of the lower-profile leagues, particularly the new-look WCHA now filled with schools that play in Division II in other sports. Programs used to hosting Minnesota in WCHA games or Michigan in CCHA contests could have a harder time selling tickets and recruits.

Michigan State coach Tom Anastos formerly served as CCHA commissioner, so he felt the loss as hard as anyone.

"It's not bittersweet. I'm over it," Anastos said. "What I'm happy about is the CCHA had a very nice run. All the programs have found a home, and I think the Big Ten opportunity is very exciting, both for our member schools and I think for college hockey. So I think there is a lot of good stuff in store."

The collective hope for the future is that other schools will follow Penn State's lead and add hockey as a varsity sport rather than pull the plug on a floundering program.

"Expansion is always good because there's a ton of youth hockey players out there who have a dream of playing college hockey," Wisconsin defenseman Frankie Simonelli said.

The NCHC took North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State and Nebraska Omaha from the rest of the WCHA core and added Miami and Western Michigan from the CCHA. But despite the reach of the Big Ten Network and the tradition and size of those schools, the NCHC hasn't flinched.

"The Big Ten really hasn't out-recruited our league at all," Nebraska Omaha coach Dean Blais said at Target Center in Minneapolis, where the NCHC held its preseason media session at the site of its conference tournament. "One consistent thing is that we're going to be down here at the Target Center every year. Minnesota and Wisconsin are going to be moving back and forth from the Xcel every other year. So we're going to get a lot of Minnesota fans over here when they go to the Joe."

Said North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol: "I have no interest in trying to be what somebody else is. We're going to stay very deeply rooted in the tradition of what our program is, recruit to that tradition and continue to be very strong in the areas where we've traditionally been strong."

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