DETROIT — The Wayne State men’s hockey program will be no more after this season.
Iona. Fairfield. Findlay. Now the Warriors have joined the ranks of lost Division I teams.
Years of speculation about the program’s future have apparently turned to reality as the Warriors will play their ninth and last season in 2007-08.
“From all the people we talked to, it was all financial,” said WSU head coach Bill Wilkinson, the only head coach WSU had during its tenure. “But I guess there are several bright spots. One, it’s good we got kicked in the teeth early so that these kids can look for schools to transfer to. Every game we play, these kids will essentially be playing for [opportunities] and they’ll be in the limelight.
“But from all the guys I’ve talked to, not one has made it known to me that they want to jump ship. The bombshell is quite a setback, but we still want to go out and have a good season — this is our last shot at it.”
The Warriors came onto the college hockey scene in 1999 and sold out their first-ever home game, an 8-4 exhibition loss to Western Ontario on Nov. 5, 1999. They joined College Hockey America the following season and rattled off three straight CHA tournament championships, culminating with an NCAA tournament bid in 2003 in which the Warriors barely lost to Colorado College in the NCAA regionals.
But since that 2003 campaign that saw their first senior class graduate, WSU has not had a winning record, going 41-85-15 in that time. The Warriors were 72-58-11 from 1999-2003.
Wayne State also never had a rink built on campus, something that may have hindered player recruitment, and was forced to play all over the suburban Detroit area at five different “home” rinks over the years, including Joe Louis Arena. In January, WSU and Niagara will play a game at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
At the 2006 hockey banquet, WSU athletic director Rob Fournier hyped the program, saying Wayne State would soon be in a league with “schools in Ann Arbor, East Lansing and Kalamazoo” and those schools would come to Detroit as well. WSU applied for membership in the CCHA last spring, but was denied entry.
Wayne State’s first (and again current) home rink, the Michigan State Fairgrounds Coliseum, hosted the CHA tournament in 2006, but the event was sparsely attended with an announced attendance of just 750 for the title game that saw Bemidji State top Niagara.
Wayne State games in recent years have also seen empty seats.
As for the future of the CHA?
“Well, you can’t do much with a four-team league,” Wilkinson said. “You become a non-entity. I don’t see the league continuing after this season. The teams left will need to find a home and I hope they do.”
It appears, however, that the remaining four CHA teams would have to look elsewhere than Atlantic Hockey for a home.
“We’ve frozen at ten teams,” said AHA commissioner Bob DeGregorio when asked Wednesday about the Wayne State situation and how it might affect Niagara, Alabama-Huntsville, Bemidji State and Robert Morris. “We are not accepting applications for new members at this time.”
Wayne State has sent some players to the minor pro ranks, and assistant coach Chris Luongo played in the NHL, but the coaching carousel at WSU saw the speed turned up a tad in recent seasons. Wilkinson’s longtime assistant Willie Mitchell bolted for Vermont before last season and Danny Brooks, another longtime Wilkinson assistant, left for Brown in 2002.
The Wayne State Division I women’s team, the lone D-I women’s team in Michigan, will reportedly stay afloat. WSU is in the four-team CHA women’s conference. Both assistant coaches, Mare MacDougall (St. Lawrence) and Grant Kimball (North Dakota), left after last season for other D-I positions.
USCHO.com’s Chris Lerch contributed to this report.