Could college hockey work at the University of Texas?

A champion will be crowned this weekend at the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh, signaling the end of the 2012-13 season and the beginning of a brave new world for college hockey. Starting during the 2013-14 season the Big Ten will have its own hockey conference (thanks to Penn State starting a Division I program), the National Collegiate Hockey Conference will play its inaugural season, the CCHA will be no more, and the WCHA will host the leftovers from the realignment fallout.

With all the changes upcoming Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News took the time to speculate which programs could join the ever-changing NCAA hockey landscape in the future. One of the programs Kennedy talked about possibly taking the plunge — and once again, this is just fun speculation — was the University of Texas.

University of Texas Longhorns

The Dallas Stars have done an incredible job growing hockey in Texas and with players such as Chris Brown getting to the NHL, the seeds are beginning to bloom. Texas, Texas A & M and North Texas are seen as the top candidates, but naturally it would take a Pegula-like donation to take things to the next level. Mark Cuban has toyed with the idea of getting into the hockey game; would he consider being a college benefactor? If so, geography is once again not a big problem since Colorado and even Alabama-Huntsville aren’t too far away.

It’s an interesting proposal from Kennedy, and while I would love to watch college hockey in Austin, the logistics of Texas instating a Division I team and supporting it are far out of the realm of possibility.

The first major hurdle would be the facilities and ice time necessary for a Division I program. Right now in Austin there is one full-time rink and the Cedar Park Center, home of the Texas Stars. While the Stars practice at the Cedar Park Center most of the time, the AHL team practices at the Northcross Mall regularly when the CPC is being used for concerts, D-League basketball, etc. So even with a smaller rink, called the Pond, in the works, ice time is already at a premium in Austin.

So the first step towards establishing a hockey team would be building a rink where the Longhorns would be the primary tenant. That rink would also have to be more than a practice rink, too, it would have to be able to accomodate 4,000 to 5,000 people and be on, or within walking distance of, campus. Even though the Cedar Park Center has Texas club games, a Division I team would need its own rink that students can get to on a Friday and Saturday night without having to travel 35 minutes (or worse with traffic).

Finding a conference would be another major roadblock. Alabama-Huntsville, the current southern-most team in the NCAA, was an independent last year and likely would have folded its program eventually if the WCHA didn’t accept it as a member in January.  Without any hockey history Texas wouldn’t be an attractive member to the six conferences and the geographic location doesn’t put the school in a favorable light for a sport that is dominated by bus trips rather than plain rides.

Of course, the biggest question is whether hockey could thrive as a college sport at Texas. The club team at the school currently struggles to field more than 10 players on the roster (I play with two of them in beer league) and those games are rarely well attended by anyone other than friends and players’ girlfriends.

Even with a massive financial donation, hockey at the University of Texas doesn’t seem feasible in the current college hockey landscape. But if the school was to ever pursue the option of adding varsity hockey, the best option is likely entering the college hockey world in a tandem with another Texas-based school.

Whether it’s Texas A&M, North Texas or any other school based in Texas, the two schools could try and institute varsity hockey programs in the same season, ensuring a built-in rivalry and selling themselves as a package deal to a conference (likely  the WCHA).

But even if if had the partnership from another school, Texas unfortunately would have a difficult time fitting into the college hockey landscape.

For the record, I agree with Kennedy on the possibilities of Nebraska, Rhode Island and Saint Louis. As for USC, I don’t know enough about hockey in Southern California.

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