From the moment that the CHA met the requirements for an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament the whining began. This upstart, diminutive division with barely six teams to its name, could now keep one team from a major conference out of the postseason, while providing nothing more than cannon fodder for a team on its way to the Frozen Four.
What a difference a year makes.
— Wayne State coach Bill Wilkinson
Though the grumbling has not subsided, a year after its first automatic trip to the show, the little conference that could enters the new season with tough out-of-town schedules and unbridled optimism fueled by a near-upset.
“Our automatic bid is absolutely deserved,” said Wayne State coach Bill Wilkinson. “I think we showed that, but there were any number of teams in our conference that could’ve represented us equally well, especially Bemidji and Niagara. There’s no question that we are putting together a strong college hockey conference,”
It’s amazing how much confidence can exude from a loss, but when CHA champ Wayne State lined up against Colorado College in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season, the question was not whether the Tigers would win, but by how much. Instead, CC needed all to summon all of its superior special-teams play to edge the Warriors, 4-2.
In other words, Wayne State was qualified to skate with the big boys, and the goal this season is to continue to show the rest of the nation just how far the CHA has developed in the scant years of its existence.
“If you look at the CHA, Wayne State represented our conference very well last year,” said Findlay coach Pat Ford. “I have been in the WCHA and the CCHA, and the CHA has definitely improved the most over the past few years of any conference, maybe out of necessity. This league has gotten better each year.”
The consensus among the league coaches is the overall skill level of the conference has risen significantly, but there are still mountains to climb, starting with finding other programs to round out the league’s roster. A search for teams is ongoing.
“We need to expand by a team or two,” said Air Force coach Frank Serratore. “I see our league as cyclical. We don’t yet have any big-time schools that can reload every year, like Michigan or Minnesota. Instead we have a team that will be in its high cycle in a given year.
“We will have a great team every year, but it won’t be the same team.”
Serratore’s cyclical model perfectly applies for this coming season. After Wayne State’s terrific season last year, it is now Bemidji State and Niagara’s turn in the rotation. The Beavers marched all the way to the CHA finals last year before falling to the Warriors, and the Purple Eagles went 9-2-2 down the stretch. Each has the veteran squad to assume the conference crown.
Bemidji and Niagara complement each other nicely in the race for the championship. Both teams will fly down the ice in a furious offensive attack. The Beavers, however, have a deeper roster, while the Purple Eagles have perhaps the best player in the conference, Joe Tallari.
After a 55-point season a year ago, Tallari heads the flashiest offense in the CHA, but even he may not be able to push the Purple Eagles all the way to the top.
“I watched Bemidji from the stands in the playoffs last year,” said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder. “I was overwhelmed with their speed and skills overall. I have to give them the upper hand right now.”
Meanwhile, Wayne State, picked fourth in the preseason coaches poll, finds itself between cycles, having graduated a tremendous senior class.
“Wayne State had a good group of guys and took a real run at the NCAA tournament,” Frank Serratore said. “This year it looks like Niagara and Bemidji.”
At the other end of the conference, Alabama-Huntsville also has to deal with a high graduation rate. The regular-season champs still feel the sting of playoff defeat, and though still with the dangerous Jared Ross, don’t have quite as much talent as the year before.
Findlay, meanwhile, has a new coach and it seems an entirely new roster. The Oilers lost the only coach they have ever had, Craig Barnett, and one of his assistants, Ford, now has the top job. Along with Ford, Findlay also brings 14 freshmen onto the roster.
Sinking towards the bottom of the pile is Air Force. The service academy struggles on a yearly basis to keep its nucleus intact, and this year will prove no exception.
At the end of the yellow-brick season for the CHA is another automatic bid, one the conference expects to really deserve.
Here is the quick skinny on each team along, in predicted order of finish. Full previews of any team can be found by clicking on its name.
Last Season: 14-14-8 (10-6-4, CHA), 3rd Place
Coaches Pick: 1st
Our Pick: 1st
Player to Watch: Grady Hunt, G
Bottom line: Picked first in the coaches poll, the Beavers will take a stinging defeat in the finals of the CHA tournament and use it to fuel an already high-powered attack, coupled with the best goalie in the conference, Grady Hunt.
Last Season: 15-17-5 (11-4-5), 2nd
Coaches Pick: 2nd
Our Pick: 2nd
Player to Watch: Joe Tallari, F
Bottom line: Tallari is the best offensive player in the conference and Niagara has by far the flashiest offense in the CHA. Could easily win the crown, but defense and goaltending are not quite as good as Bemidji.
Last Year: 21-17-2 (11-7-2) 3rd
Coaches Pick: 4th
Our Pick: 3rd
Player to Watch: Derek MacKay, F
Bottom line: The roster may have been cleared by graduation, but a gut feeling says that the Warriors find a way to defy expectations and keep building a winning tradition in the nascent conference.
Last Year: 18-14-3 (13-5-2), 1st
Coaches Pick: 3rd
Our Pick: 4th
Player to Watch: Scott Munroe, G
Bottom line: Last year’s regular-season champs flamed out in the final months of the season. With less talent on the roster, look for a slight regression. Jared Ross may be the second-best offensive player in the conference after Tallari, but the real story will be Munroe, who may have the talent to carry his team.
Last Year: 10-21-4 (3-13-4), 5th
Coaches Pick: 5th
Our Pick: 5th
Player to Watch: Brandon Straub, D
Bottom line: Coach Pat Ford, in his first year, will motivate his team to overachieve, but it will take another year to make a noticeable difference in the standings. Freshman Straub’s physical presence may not appear on the stat sheet, but symbolizes a change in attitude that Ford instills in the team.
Last Year: 10-24-3 (2-15-3) 6th
Coaches Pick: 6th
Our Pick: 6th
Player to Watch: Ryan Wiggins, F
Bottom line: For a team with no standout players, this could be another long year at the service academy.