ASHWAUBENON, Wis. — The recent wave of conference realignment in NCAA men’s hockey has officially hit the Division III level.
On Wednesday, the five University of Wisconsin schools playing in the NCHA announced plans to withdraw both their men’s and women’s hockey programs from the league following the 2013-14 season.
The schools — Eau Claire, River Falls, Stevens Point, Superior and Stout, which fields only a men’s hockey team — plan to create a new hockey conference under the auspices of the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Hockey Conference, which sponsors a majority of the state schools’ athletic programs. The teams would begin play in the new arrangement during the 2014-15 academic year.
WIAC commissioner Gary Karner officially announced the move Wednesday, leaving the 30-year-old NCHA with only two programs in its men’s hockey league — St. Norbert and St. Scholastica — and seven teams in its women’s conference.
If the seven remaining teams in the NCHA women’s conference stay put, the conference would keep its automatic berth for the NCAA tournament, while the men’s conference falls well below the seven-team minimum to maintain its bid.
The decision, cited to budgetary challenges, leaves defending Division III national champion St. Norbert searching for a new home past the 2013-14 season despite wrapping up its 13th NCHA regular-season title last Friday with a 4-2 win over UW-Stout.
The Green Knights (15-5-5, 12-4-2 NCHA) and Saints (14-7-2, 9-5-4) are the top two seeds in the NCHA Peters Cup playoffs that begin Friday. St. Norbert has a bye into next week’s semifinals after capturing the conference’s regular-season title.
St. Norbert became aware of the UW schools’ intentions on Tuesday afternoon when Karner notified Green Knights athletic director Tim Bald about the decision, which had been lightly discussed in the fall before being squelched.
With no apparent plans of further hockey expansion among the D-III schools in the UW system, the five-team WIAC has already presented St. Norbert with the option of potentially applying for admittance into the conference in effort to satisfy its eligibility for an automatic NCAA berth.
Green Knights coach Tim Coghlin said he wouldn’t be opposed to a potential move into the WIAC, but the athletic department plans to explore all options before making a decision.
“There were some discussions of potentially applying to their conference, which would be the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference,” Bald said during a press conference with Green Bay, Wis., media Wednesday afternoon.
“There are currently three leagues in the West, so there’s not a lot of options, but there are creative options that could take place. We haven’t investigated any of those. We’re about 24 hours out right now from the notification, so we’ll be talking as an administration, other athletic directors — I know the College of St. Scholastica, I’m going to get to know [athletic director] Don Olson even better than I have in the past.”
St. Norbert also could entertain the possibility of moving to Division I without offering scholarships, but Coghlin quickly dismissed the idea, along with the notion that the Green Knights’ recent string of success influenced the UW schools’ move.
Coghlin, in his 19th year at St. Norbert, voiced a preference for a move to the WIAC over the other two D-III west conferences — the MCHA and MIAC.
It’s easy to see why the Green Knights might turn a cold shoulder to the two conferences, as St. Norbert is 55-0-2 lifetime against the MCHA and owns a 76-10-6 advantage over the MIAC since Coghlin took over at St. Norbert in 1993.
The decision to disband the NCHA did come as a surprise to the Green Knights and Coghlin, who has a storied history with the NCHA.
He won a national championship both as a player and assistant coach at UW-Stevens Point before moving onto St. Norbert. There, he has led the Green Knights to nine Peters Cup playoff titles, 12 NCAA tournament appearances, seven Frozen Four appearances and two national championships (2008, 11).
“It was a little bit of a shock to the system because I don’t think we were involved in many of the conversations on the front side,” Coghlin said. “I think now that we’ve had a little more time to digest what was said, it looks to me they do it in several sports where they allow individual sports from the outside to come back and compete in the WIAC.”
Despite the initial disappointment, Coghlin remains optimistic about a future with the UW schools, valuing the competitiveness of a conference that’s produced five different NCAA Division III national champions since its inception.
“Structurally, I think it’s the most competitive league in the country in the league right now and we’d like to maintain that integrity of that level of play,” Coghlin said. “We’ll have to see if that shakes out. I know there are other people circulating other possibilities. The big thing is we understand the importance of this program and we’ll be in the right spot at the right time.”
Along with the other possibilities on the table, Bald was quick to dismiss any thoughts that the NCHA would shut down after the exit of the UW schools in 2014. The seven current NCHA members have been playing together since the 1996-97 season with an eighth school, Lake Forest, leaving for the MCHA in 2009.
“Until further notice and someone tells us we’re no longer the NCHA, we’ll still have two acting members in that,” Bald said. “We will be the NCHA. There haven’t been any discussions about [folding]. It has a long, storied history and we plan to carry that through until we decide that it no longer exists.”
As St. Norbert prepares for its next game in the Peters Cup semifinals on Feb. 25, Bald said he’d begin making phone calls about potential landing spots for the Green Knights.
Bald plans to move as quickly as possible as to not affect recruiting or the overall program, but couldn’t offer a timetable for a possible decision.
If it means the end of the NCHA, there will be mixed emotions about a conference that’s meant so much to western D-III hockey.
“There are a lot of good players who have come through and a lot of good coaches who have been a part of it,” said Coghlin, who’s the all-time winningest coach in conference history (395 wins). “The NCHA is a pretty storied league and if indeed it has gone by the wayside, it is what it is. Progress moves forward. Whatever it looks like, we’re talking about 2½ years down the road, so it’s long enough out, there’s lots of time to make decisions.”