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College Hockey:
Commentary: Conference changes weaken the sport

What to make of the reports that five teams from the WCHA and up to three from the CCHA will be bolting their respective conferences to form a new “super league?” After months of rumors and rampant speculation about new alignments and new conferences in the wake of the announcement in March of the formation of the Big Ten hockey conference, the report on Thursday took many by surprise.

You knew there were going to be changes, such as the possible location of the Final Five tournament, but few thought that the WCHA would collapse. Some quotes since the story broke indicate that WCHA officials intended to try to poach Miami and Notre Dame from the CCHA, having already poached Nebraska-Omaha. Instead, if Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota do form their own conference along with Miami, it looks like the WCHA, long considered the powerhouse conference in college hockey (rivaled only by Hockey East), will soon become a “second-tier” conference.

That’s not a knock on the programs at the other WCHA schools. Bemidji State was in the Frozen Four just two years ago, and St. Cloud State has made the NCAA tournament seven times. However, with the departure of those five, as well as the departure of Minnesota and Wisconsin for the Big Ten, the WCHA could go from being the conference with the most NCAA Division I hockey championships to one with no D-I NCAA hockey championships (if Michigan Tech sees fit to leave for the CCHA; Bemidji State and Minnesota State won D-II hockey titles).

There are possible good outcomes from the realignment, as my fellow columnist Chris Lerch details in his piece, and yes, the possible expansion of college hockey is a good one, if it happens. For now, though, let’s take a moment to mourn the demise of the WCHA.

Founded in 1951, the WCHA is the oldest college hockey conference in the nation. Though many of the New England schools played each other for years (Brown first played Harvard in 1898), the ECAC was not founded until 1961, and the CCHA started play in 1971. Hockey East was created in 1983, in response to a possible realignment at the time, when the Ivy schools were talking of forming an Ivy League conference.

It’s instructional to view that history when contemplating what this new “super conference” might do to the WCHA. The departure of Boston College, Boston University, New Hampshire and Providence from the ECAC changed the landscape of Eastern hockey. The intra-league play between New England schools and those in New York made the ECAC a stronger conference.

Since the formation of Hockey East, only two ECAC teams have won an NCAA title — Rensselaer in 1985 and Harvard in 1989 — and an ECAC team hasn’t made the title game since 1990, when Colgate fell to Wisconsin. Instead of several strong teams, the ECAC usually produces only one that realistically has a shot in the tournament.

The presences of storied programs like Denver, North Dakota, Colorado College and Minnesota-Duluth made it easier for the smaller WCHA teams to recruit good players, just for the possibility of playing against those teams. If you weren’t quite good enough to pull on a Badgers jersey or Sioux jersey and play in front 13,000 screaming fans, you could do so by playing for one of their conference rivals.

With the creation of the “super conference,” and Notre Dame’s likely decision to either join with Miami in the new conference or defect to Hockey East, the college hockey landscape will become much more stratified than it is now. You will basically have two conferences that are deep top to bottom — Hockey East occupying its normal top-heavy spot — and then two or three conferences that will get a chance to have one, perhaps two, teams go to the dance and maybe play spoiler for a round.

I’ll also, as a WCHA writer, be sad to lose my regular talks with coaches like Troy Jutting, Dave Shyiak, Bob Motzko and Tom Serratore when writing recaps of DU and CC games. Their programs were never quite deep enough that you thought they could win the WCHA, but they were always competitive with their more celebrated brethren, and could throw a scare into you. They are also fantastic quotes.

While in the long run, the game will flourish, this realignment will, for the short term, weaken college hockey as a sport overall.


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  • Komey

    I think the agrument regarding recruits is pointless.  The “haves” are going to consistantly get the best recruits.  Schools like Michigan Tech and Minnesota State could get the occasional good recruit, but not enough to consistantly be near the top like North Dakota and Wisconsin.

    It is interesting what happened to ECAC and Hockey East, and no doubt this could happen to the remaining WCHA teams. 

    • Oxtreeman

      I agree, the argument re: recruits is pointless.  The big schools like BC, UB, ND, Michigan, UND, & Denver will always get recruits…not only because they are great hockey schools but also they are great schools of learning.  That combo is a hard thing to pass up…so is the fact that these schools also have great coaching. 

       I grew up watching Miami Hockey…it was a painful thing at best…but I loved my Redskins…now Redhawks.  It was coaching that built the program up at Miami.  Coach Blasi has spent years building this program up.  Miami was never a “have” team.  Look at the history of the program…it’s a story of a long struggle.   I believe that successful coaching is what builds a team up to “have” status.  It’s a coaches job to go out and bring in the recruit, to have the recruit buy into a system that will build success on and off the ice.  As a recruit, I have to believe that you would not only play for a great team, but a great coach, that developes great teams.

      Just a thought.

  • BD

    The creation of such a super conference will hardly allow “Hockey East occupying its normal top-heavy spot” to remain relevant at all. 

    The competition to watch will move even more so to the west.  Few will care about the Big Ten conference as four of those teams do not have a culture that demands hockey like you will see in the super league.  They have their own network, but few will watch.

    And games between Hockey East teams will have only slight regional meaning.

    • komey

      These teams in the Super League will create their own haves and have-nots.  Will those have nots still get their recruits that they are used to?  I don’t think so.  Also, where is the “Super League” going to be shown?  Think a game between North Dakota and Minnesota Deluth will get more than the die hards?  As for Hockey East, they seem to have done well in the championship department last I checked (and I don’t root for a HEA team – just stating).

      • Anonymous

        UND vs UMD will get just as many viewers as UND vs Minn.   The final 5 tournament has had its crowd size that has been 80% UND fans for years.  If Minn isn’t there there are no WCHA fans in Minneapolis.

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_IBX3ZLT5XKNZDOL2YZHPVX27VI STEVEN P

          You’re kidding,right? How many people,combined,live in Grand Forks and Duluth(about 183,000)? How many people live in the Twin Cities(3,500,000)? That is OVER 19 TIMES THE POPULATION!!! My God,man,try and stay in touch with reality here. Fantasy has it’s time and place,but when you start posting your fantasies on the Internet and expect people to accept them as some sort of fact,you stand a very good chance of sounding foolish.

          • BD

            But what percentage of the MSP metropolitan area actually watches a game?  Now compare that to both UND and UMD.
            While MSP has room for growth, that growth is not assured.

      • BD

        THe only have nots I can contemplate in the new leagu would be the two former CCHA schools.  Their culture of hockey is not as strong in their population and this might become a challenge.

        I am hoping that UND games will continue to be telecast on the same channels that every home game has been shown in the past year (FCS).  A change could complicate my ability to catch a game though I hear Versus is picking them up
        .
        Regarding Hockey East, they will find it even more difficult to recruit in the west (Which they have increasingly done in the past couple of years) when most of the scouting will be conducted in the center of the nation.  Without a truly superior effort, this will cause them to become a regional product.

    • Anonymous

      AMEN

  • Schwartz

    Ms. Horgan, in your position with USCHO, I’m sure you intend to strive for accuracy.  However you are being less than accurate when you refer to Minnesota State University-Mankato as only “Minnesota State”.  There are two schools in Minnesota that use the Minnesota State nomenclature, Moorhead and Mankato; one with a D-1 hockey program and the other presently contemplating a D-1 program.  For accuracy’s sake it would be more appropriate to use and write Minnesota State-Mankato, MSU-Mankato or just plain Mankato.

    • http://www.uscho.com Todd D. Milewski

      USCHO uses Minnesota State for the team from Mankato. If the school from Moorhead adds Division I hockey, we would have to reconsider that.

  • I am 4Hawks

    Thank the greed-infested Big 10 for this mess. There was a spot available and waiting for Penn State in the CCHA, but it just didn’t offer as much potential CASH as a Big-10 hockey conference.

    • Anonymous

      Amen.  Penn St will be a doormat in the B10 for years to come.  Hockey is a sport based on tradition, not just a name, like the B10 commissioners seem to think.

      • BD

        Desire and a culture that loves hockey is the key.  Penn State and Ohio State do not, so they will be the teams that everyone in Big Ten rings the bell on for the next ten years…

  • MSU Grad 97

    The Siouxper Traitors are rumored to be on the I-can-never-find-that-channel Versus. If the real Minnesota Schools can hook up with Fox Sports North (the Gophs are destined to be on tape delay or alternate Big 10 Channel fighting for viewers with an Indiana-Northern Illinois basketball, or earlier in the year, Michigan-Northwestern football game), they may be okay.  You have to watch out for those MN teams that are too close to the Wisconsin border – cheese on the brain takes some sense out of it.

    What MSU (I am okay with them being Minnesota State as even the NSIC website calls the other MSU-Moorhead, and they were the first and largest) SCSU, Bemidji State, and whoever else comes along for the ride needs is to get North Dakota State involved.  That would really tick off the Siouxper Traitors as ND’s big metro would now be more apt to ignore the Racist Nicknames from the North. I wonder if they remembered that the U of M TC cannot play a team with a racist nickname out of conference?  Also, getting some team from South Dakota, or someone like an Iowa State, Winona State, other Wisconsin school, MSU-Moorhead, or some college from the Chicago area would really be a boon.  Those could be ready to go in a few years, but they would be provisional and would not allow for the automatic bid as team #6.  They could also try to get Air Force or UAH involved.  Both of them have strong ties to MSU from the D-II days (UAH was also a big rival of BSU in those days).  However, Air Force got their feelings hurt one year when MSU was at the end of their D-II era (two strait 12 goal games for MSU if I remember correctly) and haven’t flown their fighter jets back to Mankato since.  Anyway, I am not giving up hope, and I hope the rest of the real WCHA teams don’t as well.  Everything will be good in due time, and who knows, some of these teams may find out that they are not so ‘Siouxper’ and could come crawling back in a couple of seasons.

    • BD

      Regardless of Satellite afiliation, it will still be the Fighting Sioux Sports Network and we will no longer have to depend on that group of Minnesota Homers from Midwest.

      Regarding Minnesota inability to stop being politically Correct, well that pretty much sums up the entier state south of Fort Ripley doesn’t it?

  • Njpjb

    When does the Ivy League break from ECAC?

  • Cgp_999

    This is all really disappointing. I am so sick of the little guy getting picked on all the time in every aspect of this world, now it’s college hockey too.

    Everyone is just after money now, no one wants to just play and keep tradition alive. I feel for all the small schools that will be hurt by this, BSU included. I hope that the WCHA and CCHA can stay afloat and really stick it to these other schools and steal bids and hopefully a few championships from them too. I think some of these bigger schools have seen that the gap between them and the small schools is closing and they needed to do something about it. They need to find a way to keep the little guy down and it is just sickening. I am sure if they had their way, they would make sure that only 20 teams in the country even played division one so they could keep it all to themselves. And I think UND is the most disappointing part of all of this. They have always seemed to help the little guy, were always there for BSU and now they are turning their backs on them. The name change, now the new conference. They are a bunch of sellouts. This whole thing is just really awful.