College hockey notebook: Bemidji State coach Serratore sees Michigan Tech as wild card, BSU-Omaha online chat, Bakala practices, BSU women play in front of NCAA record crowd at Wisconsin, Mankato reaction to Sanford Center, NCHC television deal

Bemidji State's Brance Orban battles Michigan Tech's Carl Nielsen for space in front of Kevin Genoe during an October series at the Sanford Center. Pioneer File Photo/Eric Stromgren

February is here which means the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs are a little over a month away and closing in fast.

The Beavers travel to Nebraska-Omaha this weekend (Friday 7:37 p.m., Saturday 7:07 p.m.). BSU is currently in 10th place with 14 points and UNO holds the last first-round home playoff spot in sixth place at 21 points. Those seven points are not impossible to overcome, but time is running out for BSU to string some wins together and make a final challenge for one of those coveted home ice spots.

I will be talking about the series with Nebraska-Omaha hockey writer Matthew Semisch on his Radio Free Omaha blog on Wednesday from noon-1 p.m. and you are welcome to ask questions. Here is the link to the online chat.

Minnesota leads the MacNaughton Cup chase with 30 points in first place and Minnesota-Duluth five points behind in second place. The Bulldogs were stunned last weekend at home by Michigan Tech. The Huskies rallied from a four-goal deficit to tie 4-4 Friday and won 5-0 on Saturday.

I asked BSU head coach Tom Serratore what he thinks about the WCHA race at this point of the season and his focus turned to the Huskies (BSU swept Tech 6-5 and 3-1 in October at the Sanford Center).

“Michigan Tech is a wild card and I think they’re a good team. I think they should have got points in Bemidji. We were very fortunate that weekend. There’s losses we’ve had where we should have got points … I talked with (head coach) Walt Kyle at Northern Michigan and he said ‘watch out for those guys, not only this year but in the future.’ They’ve got some very good freshmen right now – (Blake) Pietila, (Tanner) Kerow, (David) Johnstone – those three in particular. They’ve got a good sophomore group. I thought it was gutty how they came back from a four-goal deficit against Duluth and that shows a lot about their character and their resiliency right now. When I saw Tech here in October, I said ‘look out.’ I could tell.”

“What to make out of it? I don’t know. Nothing surprises you in this league. It’s like us last year against Omaha. Once and awhile weird things happen and that’s sports in general.”

Bakala back this weekend?

BSU senior goalie Dan Bakala played in last Friday’s 2-1 win over MSU, Mankato but did not dress for Saturday’s game with an undisclosed lower body injury. I believe the Beavers have dressed three goalies in the majority, if not all game s this season.

Bakala was back on the ice with the team at Tuesday’s practice. Afterwards I asked him if he was going to be able to play this weekend against Nebraska-Omaha.

“I hope so,” he said.

BSU-Wisconsin women set NCAA attendance record

Bemidji State’s 1-0 loss against No. 1 Wisconsin last Saturday was played in front of 12,402 rowdy Badger fans at the Kohl Center, which set the NCAA attendance record for a women’s hockey game and was featured in the New York Times Slap Shot hockey blog.

BSU senior defenseman Montana Vichorek said this about the game:

“It was unfortunate we didn’t get any points out of it … It sucked we lost, but the experience was good. Playing in front of 12,000 people was crazy and we’ll probably never get the chance to do that again. It was fun, it a neat atmosphere. It was unfortunate they were all red and cheering against us. It was fun and I think it helped us play better.”

A Mankato reaction to the Sanford Center

MSU, Mankato beat writer Shane Frederick wrote about his first impressions of the Sanford Center for a column in the Mankato Free Press and posted some photos here.

Some excerpts from the column:

“They did it right at the Sanford Center, both for hockey fans and the teams.”

“When the WCHA breaks up after the 2012-13 season, Minnesota State expects to be one of the top programs in the revamped conference. The planned upgrades will help. Right now, though, it’s clear who will have the best rink.”

CBS Sports Network, NCHC agree to television deal

The CBS Sports Network has agreed to a multi-year agreement with the National Collegiate Hockey Conference beginning with the 2013-14 season, which will make it the exclusive national television partner for the conference.

The announcement was made Tuesday by CBSSN Programming Senior Vice President Dan Weinberg and NCHC Commissioner Jim Scherr.

The agreement calls for a minimum of 18 conference games, including the NCHC semifinal and championship tournament games.

The agreement means North Dakota will no longer broadcast its home games nationally on FCS after the school’s agreement expires and is not renewed next year.

Minnesota-Duluth hockey beat writer Kevin Pates said on Twitter Tuesday: “I have heard NCHC will pay game production costs to CBS Sports. So this doesn’t sound like a revenue stream.”

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Bemidji State men’s hockey hosts Regina in Sunday exhibition and begin season after college hockey’s summer of change

Jordan George scores against Denver in the WCHA Final Five semifinal March 18.

College hockey’s offseason this summer was marked by unprecedented change when established programs from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and the Central Collegiate Hockey Association formed a pair of new leagues – first the Big Ten and then the National Collegiate Hockey Conference for the 2013-14 season.

The chain reaction continued when four CCHA teams joined the five remaining WCHA teams in August. The latest move came last week when St. Cloud State and Western Michigan joined the NCHC.

Amid the change – with more shifting speculated – the Bemidji State men’s hockey season arrives Sunday when the Beavers host the University of Regina in an exhibition at the Sanford Center at 5:07 p.m.

“It’s college sports in the new millennium and that’s what is happening right now,” BSU head coach Tom Serratore said of the conference changes. “You look at college football and college hockey took a page right out of their book. I can’t control what happened in college hockey. All I can control is how to get the Beavers ready.”

There is little time this year for the BSU to prepare for the regular season opener next week at Miami University in Ohio. The first official team practice was Saturday, though BSU abided by NCAA regulations and combined its two allowed weekly hours of preseason practice time for Friday’s unofficial first practice.

“It’s going to be interesting on Sunday because we will have only been on the ice for two days. I think we’ll be running around a little bit and we typically do during these exhibition games,” Serratore said.

Sunday’s game will not count in the record books. The BSU coaching staff will be evaluating special teams performance by the veterans and looking find ice time for the new freshmen.

The Beavers lost six seniors to graduation: Matt Read, Ian Lowe, Emil Billberg, Ryan Cramer, Ryan Adams and Dan MacIntyre. Read, who now plays with the Philadelphia Flyers, and Lowe were key contributors to the offense.

Jordan George, Jamie MacQueen, Shea Walters and Brad Hunt are expected to be offensive leaders but the Beavers will need contributions from other players.

Who those players are going to be at this point is unclear. BSU will have strengths this year on defense led by Hunt, Jake Areshenko and goalie Dan Bakala.

Serratore has a clear vision of what he wants the Beavers to look like in 2011-12.

“I know what our identity should be,” Serratore said. “We want outwork everybody, we want to make sure we execute and pay attention to details.”

There is more of a relaxed mood this week compared to this time last season when BSU practiced the first week at City Arena while final touches were put on the Sanford Center.

There were still visible signs of construction and student section bleachers were in boxes when the Beavers skated on the Sanford Center ice for the first time Oct. 10 in an intrasquad scrimmage.

“It’s way easier right now,” Serratore said. “We were just moving in last year and we never were very comfortable and we were in a rush all of the time. We have our offices set up now, the locker room is set up and from that standpoint we are very comfortable where we are at.”

As the Beavers season begins there is still some uncertainty in what the college hockey conferences will look like in 2013-14.

Current CCHA team Notre Dame is unlikely to play independent and is considering the NCHC or Hockey East. There are rumors Hockey East will expand by one team to 12 total teams should Notre Dame join Hockey East.

Bowling Green has an invitation in hand to the WCHA. MSU, Moorhead and the University of Buffalo (N.Y.) are exploring the possibility of staring Division I programs. Alabama-Huntsville currently plays as an independent and budget concerns threaten the program’s existence.

Huntsville, which used to play in College Hockey America with Bemidji State, has no guarantee for a future conference. WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod told the Huntsville Times newspaper last week that Huntsville’s situation is “much more difficult” if WCHA membership stays at 12 or under.

The WCHA in 2013-14 as it stands today will consist of eight teams: Bemidji State, Minnesota State University, Mankato, Alaska-Anchorage, Alaska-Fairbanks, Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan, Lake Superior State and Ferris State.

“We realize we’re going to have a strong league in a couple years and sometimes change isn’t all that bad,” Serratore said. “That’s how we have to look at things. The teams that we have in the WCHA are quality programs and have great coaches. It is what it is. That’s where we’re going to play and that’s what we are going to channel our energy to.”

Serratore said it was “difficult” to see St. Cloud State leave the WCHA because of the distance between the schools – 160 miles – and the loss of a “great rivalry.”

“It’s tough in one sense but then obviously in another sense it is going to be tough, new, challenging, exciting and that’s how we have to look at it,” Serratore said. “A lot of these teams we are still going to see as non-conference opponents. You can’t turn back the clock and all we can do is look to the future.”

Follow Eric Stromgren on Twitter at @estromgren and on Facebook.

St. Cloud State, Western Michigan officially join National Collegiate Hockey Conference

St. Cloud State and Western Michigan University officially accepted invitations to join the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference on Thursday.

The two schools will join current Western Collegiate Hockey Association schools Denver, Colorado College, North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha and current Central Collegiate Hockey Association school Miami in the league that begins play in 2013-14.

“In the end, after serious study, it was the only decision that seemed right for us,” St. Cloud State President Earl H. Potter III said. “We believe that the conference’s strength of play and commitment to college hockey and student athletes is strong and deep and we look forward to an exciting future with The National.”

St. Cloud State has played in the WCHA since 1990-91 and the school’s departure will leave the WCHA with eight teams for the 2013-14 season: Bemidji State, Minnesota State University, Mankato, Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan, Lake Superior State, Ferris State, Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks.

“No question we are all disappointed by this latest announcement,” WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod said in a statement. “But on behalf of the entire Association, we want to take this time to wish the Huskies and their men’s hockey program all the best in the future. St. Cloud State has been a valued and productive member of the WCHA.”

The WCHA sent membership invitations to Western Michigan and Bowling Green State last month with a 30-day acceptance deadline, which is Friday. The WCHA now considers Bowling Green’s invitation ‘open’ according to a press release issued Friday.

The Toledo Blade newspaper reported Thursday that Bowling Green has until Oct. 7 to make a decision and the school is continuing to assess its options.

Western Michigan, based in Kalamazoo, has played varsity hockey since 1973 and has played in the CCHA since 1975.

“This is a significant day for our hockey program, our University and our community,” Western Michigan President John Dunn said. “We are proud to carry the flag for WMU and represent the great State of Michigan in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.”

The moves by St. Cloud State and Western Michigan are the latest in Division I college hockey’s conference reorganization this offseason.

The Big Ten made the first move in April when athletic directors from those schools announced it would form a league in 2013-14. Forming the Big Ten are WCHA shcools Minnesota and Wisconsin, the CCHA schools Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, and new program Penn State.

The six founding members of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference announced its formation in July.

The WCHA responded by sending a membership invitation to current CCHA school Northern Michigan, which was quickly accepted.

The WCHA later sent out membership invitations on Aug. 25 to CCHA schools Alaska-Fairbanks, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Western Michigan with a 30-day acceptance deadline. All but Western Michigan and Bowling Green State accepted the invitations within 24 hours.

“The eight programs that currently make up the new-look WCHA beginning in 2013-14 … are 100 percent committed to Division I ice hockey and we are looking forward to working together towards a common goal of providing a first-class environment for our product, our student-athletes and our fans and doing what’s right for our sport,” McLeod said. “Our brand is strong and we intend to build on that.”

Follow Eric Stromgren on Twitter at @estromgren and on Facebook.

St. Cloud State, Western Michigan expected to join National Collegiate Hockey Conference on Thursday

The new National Collegiate Hockey Conference is expected to grow by two new members Thursday.

The conference, which begins play in 2013-14, extended membership invitations to St. Cloud State and Western Michigan on Wednesday according to a NCHC statement.

“Both universities fit perfectly with the established goals of our conference membership,” said University of North Dakota Athletic Director Brian Faison, who is serving as a spokesperson for the NCHC Athletic Directors Committee. “Their programs are highly competitive and produce quality student-athletes. Each institution has made significant commitments to the continued success of their hockey programs and they are both located in tradition-rich hockey states.”

St. Cloud State will hold a press conference Thursday according to a report from the St. Cloud Times and Western Michigan is expected to formally accept the invitation Thursday at a seperate press conference according to a report from the Kalamazoo Gazette.

St. Cloud State is a current member of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and Western Michigan is a current member of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.

St. Cloud State and Western Michigan will join the NCHC with current WCHA schools North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Nebraska-Omaha, Minnesota-Duluth and CCHA school Miami in 2013-14.

Pending St. Cloud State’s acceptance the WCHA will consist of eight teams in 2013-14: Bemidji State, Minnesota State University, Mankato, Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan, Lake Superior State, Ferris State, Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks.

Thursday’s expected moves are the latest in an offseason realignment of college hockey conferences.

The moves started in April when the Big Ten announced it would form a league with Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and new program Penn State in 2013-14.

The formation of NCHC was announced in July and left the WCHA with five teams.

The WCHA reacted by extending an invitation to CCHA school Northern Michigan. NMU accepted the invitation on July 20.

Administrators from remaining CCHA and WCHA schools held a meeting in Chicago on Aug. 23 and on Aug. 25, the WCHA extended membership invitations to CCHA schools.

Alaska-Fairbanks, Bowling Green State, Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Western Michigan received invitations with a 30-day response deadline.

Fairbanks, Lake Superior State and Ferris State accepted the invitations within 24 hours. Bowling Green and Notre Dame are the last remaining members of the CCHA for 2013-14.

Bowling Green athletic director Greg Christopher said the program was ‘tracking’ towards joining the WCHA for 2013-14 in an August Toledo Blade newspaper report.

Notre Dame has yet to decide its plans for a conference in 2013-14. It is speculated Notre Dame’s choices are to join the NCHC, Hockey East or play as an independent.

Alabama-Huntsville’s conference fate is also uncertain. The Chargers are currently playing as an independent and are in danger of being dropped as a varsity sport unless $500,000 can be raised.

Follow Eric Stromgren on Twitter at @estromgren and on Facebook.

Lake Superior State, Ferris State and Alaska-Fairbanks accept membership invitations from WCHA

Shea Walters skates behind the net against Ferris State during a Dec. 31 game at the Mariucci Classic. Pioneer Photo/Eric Stromgren

Lake Superior State, Ferris State and Alaska-Fairbanks have accepted membership invitations from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and will play in the league beginning in the 2013-14 season.

The WCHA extend invitations Thursday to the three Central Collegiate Hockey Association schools along with Western Michigan and Bowling Green. There is a 30-day response deadline. The invitations followed a joint WCHA-Central Collegiate Hockey Association meeting Tuesday in Chicago.

Bowling Green could be the next team to join the WCHA and the school is leaning toward accepting the invitation according to blog posting from Toledo Blade newspaper writer John Wagner. When athletic director Greg Christopher was asked if it is likely Bowling Green will join the WCHA merger, he said “things are tracking in that direction.”

It has been speculated this summer Western Michigan would wait to see where fellow CCHA school Notre Dame will land before making their decision, but athletic director Kathy Beauregard told the Kalamazoo Gazette WMU will no longer wait.

“Right now, it’s time for us to make the best decision for Western Michigan University,” Beauregard told the Gazette. “We know we stand on our own. We know we bring excited, committed Bronco hockey to whatever league we end up positioning ourselves in.”

The startup National Collegiate Hockey Conference are rumored to be pursing Notre Dame. If Notre Dame were to join the current six-team NCHC, Western Michigan is rumored to follow.

But Notre Dame is currently weighing its options and could potentially play as an independent or pursue membership in Hockey East. Beauregard told the Gazette it is unlikely the Broncos will pursue membership in Hockey East.

“I would say that Hockey East is not as viable for us as knowing what we have with some other options,” Beauregard said. “I will also say I don’t think anything is off the table as far as what could happen in the east if some other things could trickle other effects.”

WCHA membership now stands at nine teams for 2013-14: Bemidji State, St. Cloud State, MSU, Mankato, Alaska-Anchorage, Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan, Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Alaska-Fairbanks.

Northern Michigan left the CCHA for the WCHA in July. Friday’s announcement by the three schools likely means the end of the CCHA in two years. It has existed since the 1971-72 season.

Ferris State has sponsored hockey since 1975-76 and became a Division I program in 1979. It is located in Big Rapids, Michigan. The city is located 200 miles northwest of Detroit and has a population of almost 11,000.

“The uncertainty of the past five months has caused some genuine angst and instability on hockey playing campuses across the country,” Ferris State Athletics Director Perk Weisenburger said in a press release. “Through the vision, leadership and cooperative spirit of the institutions in these two tradition-rich conferences there is a renewed sense of stability, excitement and a new direction for hockey programs in both the CCHA and WCHA.”

Lake Superior State has sponsored hockey since 1966-67 and was part of the International Collegiate Hockey Association with Bemidji State until it joined the CCHA in 1972. It is located in Sault St. Marie, Michigan on the far eastern edge of the upper peninnsula and has a population of about 16,000. The school has won three Division I hockey championships, the last in 1994.

“Without fully knowing the final outcome, if everything realigns as we have it on paper today, I think this will be a better conference for Lake Superior State Hockey long-term than the CCHA was, and I thought the CCHA was pretty good,” Lake Superior State president Tony McLain said in a statement.

Varsity hockey at Alaska-Fairbanks started in 1925 and the Nanooks played in Division II from 1972-85 before moving to Division I. UAF became full members of the CCHA in 1994 and the school is located about 360 miles north of Anchorage.

“There is a collective sense of relief,” Fairbanks Athletic Director Forrest Karr said in a statement. “We can now turn our attention to making sure all CCHA student-athletes have a quality experience over the next two years and to helping build on the WCHA’s solid foundation.”

Fairbanks plays in the 4,595-seat Carlson Center, Ferris State plays in the 2,493-seat Ewigleben Ice Arena and Lake Superior State plays in the 3,373-seat Taffy Abel Arena.

The Marquette (Mich.) Mining Journal reported NMU athletic director Les Wong said the WCHA made a request for Ferris State and Lake Superior State to upgrade their arenas. Both athletic departments agreed to make improvements.

The addition of the three schools is the latest move in a wave conference reorganization in college hockey this offseason.

The shift started in March when the Big Ten announced plans to form a conference in 2013-14. The Big 10 will bring together current WCHA programs Minnesota and Wisconsin, CCHA programs Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and new program Penn State.

The National Collegiate Hockey Conference formed in July when current WCHA programs North Dakota, Nebraska-Omaha, Denver, Colorado College and Minnesota-Duluth formed the new league with CCHA school Miami.