The first season of Big Ten men’s hockey is now history. It finished with Minnesota as regular season champs, Wisconsin as tournament champion, and three teams ranked among the nation’s top 12: No. 1 Minnesota, No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 12 Michigan.
The six-team league — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State were members of other conferences, and Penn State was an independent — became a conference last year and started play this season.
“I thought the games were great,” assessed Big Ten Associate Commissioner Jennifer Heppel in an MSR sit-down interview prior to the March 22 Wisconsin-Ohio State championship game in downtown St. Paul. “I think the coaches have been happy, [and] I really like the way the schools have come together in the way they communicated with each other.
“I was pleasantly surprised at the television package that came together,” continued Heppel. “NBC [Sports Network] and BTN really enhanced that national package.”
On the first-ever Big Ten men’s hockey tourney, Heppel pointed out, “My number-one priority is the experience of the student-athletes from the time they step off the bus at the hotel to walking into the locker room here. We [treated] the teams like you’d treat NHL teams. I feel real good about this first tournament.”
Now that the inaugural season is in the books, the associate commish says “a comprehensive review” of the entire season from start to finish, including last week’s tourney, will take place.
Detroit will be the site of next year’s tourney — St. Paul will host again in 2016.
“You want to have the same type of experience [in Detroit], but it is a different facility [than the St. Paul downtown arena],” surmised Heppel.
Associate Commissioner Andrea Williams, who manages the Big Ten men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, and the football championship game, told the MSR last week in St. Paul that discussions are now underway on how the hoops tourney format will look next year.
With Rutgers and Maryland joining the Big Ten next season, “We’re still tinkering with it to figure out what this is going to look like,” admitted Williams, the only Black female among the league associate commissioners. “That doesn’t mean we won’t have a neutral site component.”
Chicago will be next year’s host city for both hoops tournaments — the NBA’s Chicago Bulls arena will be the men’s site, and the Sears Centre in suburban Chicago will serve as the women’s home.
Indianapolis “is a great city for us,” said Williams of the Indiana state capitol city — it remains the home for the Big Ten football title game, and the conference basketball tournaments will return there in two years.
The Windy City, however, “is a [bigger] city with a lot to offer,” she pointed out. “It’s our biggest alumni base, and it is a destination city. It’s [also] in our backyard,” referring to the conference’s headquarters near O’Hare Airport.
“It a wonderful footprint for the Big Ten,” said Williams.
Finally, Williams reiterated, “We want to make sure that we are in the footprint of the Big Ten conference for all of our events, so we can showcase our student-athletes…to all of our respective fans.”
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Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.