Tip of the iceberg for ND's move to Big Ten?

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Temptation exists, for the most cynical of folks, to look beyond the news.

The worst-kept secret in college sports over a 24-hour news cycle the other day was Notre Dame’s decision to transfer its hockey team from the prestigious Hockey East conference to the struggling Big Ten in 2017-18.

On the surface, it doesn’t make sense.

In terms of athletics, the professed mandate at Notre Dame is: Compete at the highest level possible.

That’s a good place to start in this case.

Hockey East is the highest level possible. No one can dispute that. Notre Dame is one of six conference teams that were invited to the upcoming 16-team NCAA Tournament. Friday in Cincinnati, the Irish will play Michigan, the Big Ten’s only representative in The Big Skate.

Just a couple weeks ago, Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson talked about how he has molded his roster with talent to fit the demands of opponents in Hockey East. Speed takes precedence over bulk, especially on defense.

Sounds like a football comparison between the Big Ten and SEC.

Bet he was just aching to spill the beans back then, as he talked with reporters.

But, we digress.

Why leave? Now? Four years ago, the cozy, competitive Central Collegiate Hockey Association crumbled because the Big Ten wanted to be autonomous fielding the sport. When Penn State invested in a program, it made six conference schools with quality facilities.

Wisconsin and Minnesota are hockey hotbeds that happen to have struggled lately to live up to their rich tradition. Kinda like Notre Dame football under Bob Davie. And Tyrone Willingham. And Charlie Weis. Same goes for Michigan State and, for the most part, Michigan.

In other words, since its inception, the Big Ten has had problems meeting expectations. Regular-season champ Minnesota lost to runner-up Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament championship last week. The game was played in the beautiful hockey cathedral in St. Paul. Two-thirds of the 18,000 seats were empty. Sad, considered the hometown Gophers were playing.

When the CCHA first dissolved, the Big Ten smugly wanted no part of Notre Dame or anyone else. So the Irish packed up to look for a home.

Notre Dame adjusted well to Hockey East. A third-place finish and first-round tournament bye this season was proof that the Irish had found a place among the elite.

So, why bail?

Buses rather than planes. Wednesday, Jackson talked about the demands of travel, even though the Irish always “go first class.” No more airports.

Jackson had no qualms about the competitive level of the Big Ten having its needle pointed toward the elite level by the time Notre Dame joins.

This could either be a blip on the radar or a seismic move. It’s way too early to quantify what’s happening right now.

Is this a hockey-exclusive situation in which a struggling league reached out to a vital program for help?

Or, in the big picture, is this the beginning of a thaw in the “cold war” between the Big Ten and Notre Dame?

For years, the two entities had flirted, but when Notre Dame refused to have its football pigeon-holed by the constraints of a conference, it was a deal-breaker.

None of the power brokers on either side — the movers and shakers behind the scenes — are going to admit to anything more than this being a move that makes geographic and economic sense, while throwing the competitive equation out the window.

Hmmmmm. (See Notre Dame’s professed mandate above.)

But, the cynics among us can’t help but project this beyond the borders of a niche sport. Is this the first step toward the Big Ten warming to the idea of welcoming Notre Dame – and the rest of its sports that currently compete in the Atlantic Coast Conference – as friend, rather than foe, even if the Irish steadfastly maintain football independence?

The Big Ten owes Notre Dame now.

There’s no indication that the Irish have any inkling of leaving the ACC. But, then again, probably several months ago there was no reason to walk out on Hockey East, either.

Things change.

Notre Dame football won’t join a league anywhere until there’s no way to get to the playoffs without a conference title. If the playoff scenario goes from four to eight teams anytime soon, that will eliminate any impediment for independents.

Other Notre Dame teams are just starting to get comfortable in the ACC. Economic realities, though, are still fact. If the Irish baseball team gets rained out of a weekend series in Miami, it’s much more costly than a series at Northwestern would have been.

However, some ideas cost dollars and lack sense. Could this be the first step toward changing that?

Or, just a new home for Irish hockey in a bad league, with no other strings attached?

Time will tell.

Notre Dame’s Sam Herr moves the puck down the ice during the Notre Dame-Northeastern hockey game on Friday, March 11, 2016, inside the Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN