By Tom Coyne
AP Sports Writer
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame is finally joining the Big Ten, though only as an affiliate member in the sport of men’s hockey.
The university and conference announced Wednesday the Fighting Irish will begin Big Ten play with the 2017-18 season. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said joining the Big Ten will make it easier on athletes who for the past three years have played in the Hockey East against teams in New England.
“We understood that being in Hockey East that traveling would be challenging and it certainly was,” he said. “So when this option was presented, it is so much better. There’s so much less time in the airports and in the air and there’s some venues we can bus to. So it’s a completely better experience.”
Big Ten associate commissioner for hockey Brad Traviolia said in talking with league coaches they didn’t believe six teams was ideal.
“It will allow us to be less reliant on non-conference scheduling,” he said. “We’re also able to renew some historic rivalries between Notre Dame and some of our own members and we’re going to create some new rivalries as well.”
Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna issued a release Wednesday on Notre Dame’s decision, saying the college hockey landscape continues to change.
The Big Ten started its own league after Penn State added a program in 2012, giving the conference the minimum six teams needed to qualify for an automatic NCAA Tournament berth. The move led to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association dissolving and a shakeup in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, with some remaining members forming the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
The move hasn’t gone as well as expected for the Big Ten. Minnesota reached the national championship game in 2014, but the league failed to land an at-large bid to either of the last two NCAA tournaments.
Traviolia said he doesn’t foresee adding any other programs soon.
“I don’t think there’s any rush to go to eight, if people feel eight is the magic number, or 10 is the magic number,” he said. “For us it’s really about fit.”
Swarbrick said joining the Big Ten will be better for fans because the league has more natural rivals. He said the only rivalry in the Hockey East was Boston College, another Roman Catholic school that like Notre Dame competes in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“People react differently to Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan or Michigan State coming in,” Swarbrick said. “You want to create the best atmosphere you can for your student athletes and this will help us do it.”
Notre Dame considered giving up its independence in football in 1999 to join the Big Ten, but the board of trustees voted against it after students and alumni rallied against the proposal because they felt Big Ten members had snubbed Notre Dame decades earlier.
Swarbrick said he doesn’t expect any opposition to the move in hockey.
“I think people understand the college landscape is just different,” he said.