The Colorado College Tiger hockey team had their final open dates last weekend. Three weeks remain in the regular season, beginning with a home series this week against conference leader St. Cloud State. It will also be the Tigers' final three weeks in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. Next year CC will join seven other schools in the newly-formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference. The formation of that conference was announced in the summer of 2011, with the end result being that sic current WCHA teams will transfer over to the new league. All this came about because the Big Ten will have a hockey conference, as they now have six hockey-playing schools, with the addition of the program at Penn State.
For this writer, the end of the WCHA as we have known it is quite sad. Growing up in Minnesota, I was always a WCHA guy, and have remained so in my 21 years as a Colorado resident. The history of this league is like none other in college hockey. WCHA schools, past and present, have accounted for 37 NCAA championships, well over half of the total number of titles. You may remember 2005, when WCHA teams made up the entire NCAA Frozen Four in Columbus, OH. (In the semifinals, Denver defeated Colorado College and North Dakota downed Minnesota. Denver then beat UND 4-1 for their second consecutive title.)
The new WCHA will have four holdovers: Michigan Tech, Alaska-Anchorage, Bemidji State, and Minnesota State-Mankato. Tech will be the only remaining original conference member. "Michigan Tech is the school I feel sorry for," said CC head coach Scott Owens. "They'll have to travel to Alaska twice now in some years." Joining those four will be five current members of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association: Alaska, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, and Northern Michigan. The CCHA will no longer exist after the changes. Independent Alabama-Huntsville was added last month, making for a new, ten-team league.
WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod spoke about various aspects of the new situation, starting with his reaction to the formation of the NCHC, "We were not caught completely by surprise. But we had no communication from that group about it." I asked if he thought some panic had set in among the schools leaving the conference. "You're right. There may have been some of that about Minnesota and Wisconsin leaving, you know what I mean. Panic mode may have set in about how to compete with the Big Ten."
At that point, the WCHA brass had to act quickly, as one of the western conferences surely would not survive. "We had several contingency plans in place," McLeod said. "We were contacted right away by three of the remaining CCHA teams. We were doing our homework. We worked our way through that with campus visits and such. We had our feet planted firmly in mid-air for a while," he joked. "After St. Cloud and Western Michigan left, we knew where we were going."
St. Cloud State and Western Michigan were added to the NCHC after the formulation of the league by six schools, which were: Colorado College, Denver, Miami (Ohio), Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha, and North Dakota.
Alabama-Huntsville also had discussions with Atlantic Hockey, the conference that includes Air Force. "They contacted us right away," McLeod explained. "As they developed a feel for the situation, I relayed to them what the concerns were." Some have joked about the travel challenges from Huntsville, AL, to Fairbanks, AK. However, it may be just as easy to get to Huntsville, even if going through Nashville, TN, as it is to get to Houghton (Michigan Tech) or Sault Ste. Marie (Lake Superior St.) MI.
Minnesota, and former Colorado College, head coach Don Lucia also weighed in on the changes, "For me it's a sad deal, because of my roots. It's my 20th year coaching in the league. It may work out great for some of those teams. The good news is, they are like institutions. With the exception of Bowling Green, they're all Division-II institutions, with hockey as their main sport. I still think it'll be a very good league. It'll be competitive. The fans will still have the passion, and on campus hockey will be the number one sport."
Lucia certainly has a point. Teams like Michigan Tech, who was a hockey power in the mid-70's, and Lake Superior State might have a better chance of returning to prominence in the new lineup. Lake State was twice a national champion in the 80's. And don't forget that Ferris State played for the NCAA championship last year.
Colorado College will finish their regular season with a home series against Minnesota State, then a road trip to Michigan Tech. It may be a while before we see those teams again. The Tigers will certainly play some of their current league foes in the future in non-conference matchups. When, is yet to be determined.