A new frontier on the horizon for college hockey

Athletic directors from North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha, Colorado College, Denver and Miami issued a joint press release Saturday announcing plans to form a new conference for the 2013-14 season.

The formation of the new league is stunning and for now drops the WCHA membership to five teams. The WCHA has been in existence since 1951. North Dakota, Colorado College, Denver and Minnesota were charter members.

Wisconsin, which joined the league in 1969, will be leaving for the new Big Ten Conference with Minnesota the same 2013-14 season as a result of Penn State’s addition to the Division I ranks. Once the Big Ten announced plans to form its own conference in March, all schools not in the Big 10 started looking out for their own interests.

And here we are.

The differences may be revenue potential, competitive advantage or a combination of things. Who knows? The WCHA was profitable so there must be some compelling reason to leave.

When looking at the conference reorganizations from a competitive standpoint, the schools left behind will likely have a better opportunity to reach the NCAA Tournament.

A few years ago when the Beavers were playing in the four-team College Hockey America conference, I asked a BSU player on the John Glas Fieldhouse ice why he came to Bemidji. Among the reasons he listed was the CHA Tournament.

“At the end of the season it comes down to four teams, two games, two wins and the shortest route to the NCAA Tournament,” he said.

How different it is in the WCHA today. Earning the league’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid requires winning a minimum of four games and a maximum of six games in the league playoffs during a two-week span. Chances are the road goes through top-ranked teams in the country.

If the programs left in the WCHA and CCHA form some other league, the road to the NCAA Tournament would be more of a level playing field without a playoff path through teams stocked year in and year out with NHL prospects.

Playing in a league with power hockey schools does not automatically make recruiting an easy task. The truth is this: small and mid-sized schools are never going to woo blue chip recruits away from the top schools. It’s tough to imagine a touted prospect taking much time debating between Lake Superior State and Michigan. Has Wisconsin recently lost a major recruit to Michigan Tech or Boston College a recruit to UMass-Lowell?

There is also a point to be made about the financial side of the new landscape. The regular trips from big schools to smaller school rinks as part of league play will be gone, though non-conference schedules will have to be filled.

When smaller schools travel to big schools for non-conference games there is usually some kind of financial payout. If the college game grows in popularity out of all this reorganization, small schools keep a profitable and balanced home schedule and can make a profitable non-conference schedule with selective road trips.

Fans will be disappointed with the loss of regular marquee matchups in their backyard. But if money is made on non-conference schedules and new educational opportunities are created at institutions, it’s tough to see that as a bad thing.

BSU hockey has a strong tradition at the school and in the community. The Sanford Center as a hockey rink is one of the best collegiate hockey facilities in the country. It will keep the program competitive in the future – something the John Glas Fieldhouse could not do.

A future in a new-look WCHA is probably disheartening to some in Bemidji who put reputations and money on the line during debates over arena funding just a few short years ago.

When Memorial Hall was packed in April 2009 during the Frozen Four run for a site visit from WCHA representatives, there were chants of ‘W-C-H-A’ from fans to show local support for admittance to the league.

“There’s going to be days we’ve all had our days like this that the Beavers have had today in the WCHA. But there are days when it’s not so good either,” WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod told the Pioneer that day.

“Even in the bad days, there must be an institutional commitment to maintain the hockey program … Not only to a Division I program, but to a quality Division I program, and that’s what’s important to the WCHA.”

It’s amazing how decades of league tradition have evaporated in this offseason reorganization. The new frontier of college hockey is coming.

When the dust settles, programs and fans have no choice but to move forward. This reorganization seems like a big risk and hopefully there is a reward somewhere down the road for the game and all the schools playing the game. If some schools are forced to fold programs because of reorganization, those will be sad days indeed.

The fracturing of the WCHA is unsettling and uncertainty of the future is concerning. Change does that. I also feel the college game has so much going for it and there is no way it will fall on its face or fade away.

BSU hockey attracted just over 62,000 passionate fans to the Sanford Center in its inaugural WCHA season last winter. Time will tell if that figure can be sustained through the cyclical nature of winning and losing seasons.

If the John Glas Fieldhouse could be packed on cold winter nights to watch games against Niagara and Alabama-Huntsville, the Sanford Center will be full to watch to watch games in the new WCHA. Whatever it looks like.

Hopefully the same can be said for other rinks across the country in 2013-14.

4 thoughts on “A new frontier on the horizon for college hockey

  1. Good job trying to make lemonade out of these lemons, but this throws the costs and revenues out of whack in a big way, which jeopardizes the whole athletic scene at Bemidji State. It may a take a few years to happen, but unless revenues do what they were supposed to do there is no way BSU can maintain $5 million dollar sports programs.

    • First as a Sioux fan, I will say I am not in favor of this move but its obvious many people think this is UND’s doing. That I disagree with. Its much more understandable to think Miami (or maybe Notre Dame) said “We have not interest in joinging a league (WCHA) with “XX”U so lets form another league”.

      My “advise”: You put a quality team on the ice and it will work out. North Dakota was not given its success in college hockey… they earned it over time. Any other “smaller” program can get there too but it wont happen overnight.

  2. The reason for the North Dakota, et al leaving is WHCA is scheduling. Mark my words – they have worked out a secret scheduling agreement with the BigTen. What they’ve done is created what effectively will be a twelve team super league. I would not doubt there is even some deal with the BigTen Network. You can bet teams like UNO and Michigan; Denver and Wis; etc will be seeing quite of bit each other. This is a scheme to insure strength of schedule to insure plenty of at-large bids between the BT and the new conference. Bemidji will be left hoping for non conference dates against old CHA teams like Bobby Moe and Niagara. Just wait.

  3. Once again BSU falls behind the hockey curve. It dawdled when the NAIA was getting out of hockey, when DII was going away and when the CHA was going away. They react rather than being proactive. They should have known this was coming when the Big Ten Network went on the air and for certain when Penn State went Division I. If this new league doesn’t work out-then what? As much as hockey is part of the landscape of Northern Minnesota-It might be time to get out of hockey before it brings down the rest of the athletic program. Do you think the NSIC is going to want us if we can’t field a football or basketball program because hockey losses wrecked the department. I’d rather not see that happen.

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