You could say the WCHA Final Five is going home.
The league announced on Tuesday plans to play its postseason tournament at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., for the next three years. The Center is being built on the site of the former St. Paul Civic Center, which hosted the tournament in its infancy.
“We’ve had a nice long relationship with St. Paul and a lot of the people involved there too, so we’re happy to be heading home,” WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod said.
And heading home could prove to be quite a lucrative deal for the conference. While McLeod would not elaborate on financial data of the contract, he said this marks a significant time for the league.
“It’s a watershed time for us because we’re looking at a million-dollar weekend,” McLeod said. “That would have been unheard of not long ago. I think the tournament is really coming of age. The event is turning more into the event, rather than who’s in it.”
WCHA staff members were awed by the Xcel Center when some got a tour last March, even though the arena was then, and still is now, a work in progress. The building is being constructed for the Minnesota Wild, the NHL expansion team set to begin regular-season play in October after the exhibition season starts in September.
The building, expected to cost $130 million, seats 18,600 for hockey and features 64 luxury suites and 2,800 club seats.
The Xcel Center was chosen over downtown Minneapolis’ Target Center, which hosted the tournament the last two years. The home of the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves, Target Center holds 19,006 for basketball (or roughly 17,000 for hockey) and has 68 luxury suites.
The 1999 and 2000 Final Fives were two of the most successful on record. The tournament drew 42,226 fans in 1999 and 49,717 in 2000. McLeod said the 2000 event was the second-best tournament, dollar-wise.
But WCHA officials had some concerns about the building. Near the top of the list was that the Final Five could be the only hockey played at the Target Center next year.
“Certainly, that was a concerning aspect of it all,” McLeod said. “In order to host five teams, there’s some concerns about the size and number of locker rooms available. The access to the press box was quite difficult. Some of the social things we tried to do in the building were a little more difficult.
“Those were definitely factors involved, but obviously we’ve been there and been very successful. When the money end of things is pretty equal, those get to be factors.”
That’s not to say the WCHA doesn’t have some concerns with the Xcel Center. For one, while league officials toured the facility, no one has yet seen it completed. Not until the Wild begin play in the building will anyone know how things will shake out.
“I’ve been in the building twice and saw a lot of schematics, but until you get right in it, it’s really hard to tell,” McLeod said.
That was one of the reasons the deal with the Xcel Center spans only three years. When the venues made presentations to league members at the WCHA’s annual meeting in Florida earlier this year, talks from both sides were about a five-year deal.
But the league preferred a shorter deal as a precaution.
“It felt more comfortable that way,” McLeod said, “certainly because of the unknown.”
Xcel Energy is the new name of the former Northern States Power Co., the title sponsor of the Final Five. Xcel is paying $3 million a year in cash and services for 25 years for naming rights. That money goes directly to the Wild.
Xcel/NSP has one year remaining on its contract with the league. After that, McLeod said, the St. Paul Arena Company, which manages the Xcel Center, has the right to seek larger firms for title sponsorship.
The St. Paul Civic Center was the site of the first WCHA playoff championship in 1988. It hosted the tournament from 1988 to 1993, and again in 1995 and 1997.
“The tournament has always been successful in this market,” St. Paul Arena Company President Chris Hansen said in a news release, “and we look forward to making this great hockey tournament even better in the new Xcel Energy Center.”
Milwaukee’s Bradley Center hosted the event in 1994, 1996 and 1998.
The Bradley Center was initially involved in the bidding process for the Final Five. Its management asked for and was granted an extension to the bidding deadline in March to prepare a bid, but then decided to pull out.
On Tuesday, the Bradley Center was awarded the 2006 NCAA Frozen Four. The Xcel Energy Center is scheduled to host the Frozen Four in 2002.
The 2001 Final Five is scheduled for March 15-17. In 2002, it will be March 14-16 and in 2002, March 13-15.