The NCAA Division-III college hockey landscape changed in a big way on Wednesday, February 15, 2012, with the decision of the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC) to end its 30-plus year affiliation with the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association (NCHA).
Starting with the 2014-2015 season, the five hockey playing schools of the WIAC, Wis.-Superior, Wis.-Stevens Point, Wis.-River Falls, Wis.-Eau Claire, and Wis.-Stout, will drop out of the NCHA and compete solely under the banner of the WIAC.
“The two factors that played into this decision were the budgetary issues that we are having with all of our sports (not just hockey), and (the fact) that the structure of the NCHA was becoming increasingly unmanageable,” WIAC commissioner Gary Karner said. “Our athletic directors decided, and I concurred with that decision, that it was time for us to solely play under the auspices of the WIAC.”
That is not to say the league intends to be an exclusive entity unto itself. The WIAC issued invitations to all of the remaining members of the NCHA to join the WIAC under an affiliate agreement.
“We’ve extended an invitation, as informal as it was, to all of the NCHA, and to any programs in the Midwest that want to consider us for an affiliate membership in men’s and women’s ice hockey,” Karner said. “No (single school) was specifically targeted with that invitation. We’re open to consideration for anybody.”
However, that fact fails to sugarcoat the resulting fallout of the WIAC’s withdrawal, which stands to restructure the entire landscape of Division III hockey going forward. All three western hockey conferences, the NCHA, the Midwest Collegiate Hockey Association (MCHA), and Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC), will feel the aftershocks of the WIAC’s decision as they proceed in the days and months ahead.
The institutions that stand the most to lose are St. Norbert College and the College of St. Scholastica, which were left out of the WIAC’s initial plans. Both the Green Knights and Saints face the unenviable task of being forced to decide on how they want to progress with their hockey programs.
“We are trying to create a couple of options for our men’s and women’s hockey programs and to sort out what is our best fit,” St. Scholastica athletics director Don Olson said. “One scenario going forward would be to have the 10 institutions not associated with the WIAC or MIAC have conversations about what kind of alignments could be created. Another would be to pursue an associate membership in the WIAC.”
In a perfect geographical world, where no other factors or affiliations were taken into account, the most logical move for St. Norbert is to join the MCHA, which carries schools from Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan, all of which are within decent proximity to DePere, Wis. Meanwhile, St. Scholastica, of Duluth, Minn., could be best served by moving into the MIAC, which is made up of its brethren from the North Star state.
However, plenty of obstacles stand in the way of those possible scenarios. For St. Norbert, there is a question of competitive balance. Lifetime against the MCHA’s current makeup, the defending national champions owns a 55-0-2 record. Meanwhile, the Saints’ road to the MIAC must climb over a pair of obstacles, according that league’s executive director Dan McKane.
“At this point, it is too early to tell what is going to happen with St. Scholastica’s hockey program,” McKane said. “What I can tell you is that (the MIAC has) a moratorium on new membership, which was put in place many years ago. We also don’t allow for any affiliate members. But I think the MIAC would be open to seeing what options are out there to help out schools such as St. Scholastica.”
Both institutions could attempt an affiliation with the WIAC, which the league has expressed interest in. At least St. Norbert and St. Scholastica’s bargaining position is strong, as the schools own the top two spots in the current NCHA standings.
“There’s an implication (from commissioner Karner) that the WIAC will accept associate members for hockey,” Olson said. “But at the same time, there are implications that say the WIAC will be just fine and comfortable going forward with their five men’s hockey programs and four women’s hockey programs.”
While St. Norbert and St. Scholastica contemplate their fateful decision on how to carry on, the WIAC schools are already making plans to move ahead. With its new arrangement in place, Wis.-River Falls Athletic Director Roger Ternes hopes to add more of Twin Cities-based schools to its nonconference schedule, while leaving the option for games with their former NCHA rivals left behind.
“We will have a number of opportunities to compete against institutions to our west in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area that would provide great competition and are located within a 30- to 40-minute drive from River Falls,” Ternes said. “We really need to maximize our opportunities to compete in the nonconference schedule. That doesn’t eliminate us from competing against (a rival) like St. Norbert in the future, but we really need to look at our finances to make that decision.”
Meanwhile, McKane expects his conference to continue to reach out east for nonconference games for its schools.
“There are only so many hockey schools in this area, so we definitely want to reach out to our closest opponents,” McKane said. “We have a crossover with the current NCHA right now (and) we would like to continue that (with the WIAC) in the future because it’s beneficial for all of us.”
Beyond just men’s college hockey, the WIAC’s withdrawal from the NCHA stands to alter the relatively new landscape of Division III women’s hockey.
As the NCAA currently stands, there are just two conferences, the MIAC and NCHA, which carry the sport in the Midwest. The four WIAC schools that are leaving the NCHA, Wis.-Superior, Wis.-Stevens Point, Wis.-River Falls, and Wis.-Eau Claire, will make up a third conference.
However, the WIAC’s decision should be far less devastating for women’s hockey, since the NCHA will be left with seven programs, as opposed to just two in its men’s division.
“I would expect us (to go forward) with the women’s division, but that decision is up to our athletic directors,” NCHA commissioner Bill Kronschnabel said.
That fact offers some reassurance to current NCHA women’s members like Adrian College, a program that has grown into a major player in both men’s and women’s hockey despite its isolated geographic location near Detroit, Mich.
“At this point, I don’t think there is any panic for the seven teams still remaining in the NCHA,” said Bulldogs women’s coach Chad Davis, whose team ranks as the top non-WIAC school in the NCHA this season. “We’re confident in how things will play out, and we would expect to have continued success at Adrian regardless of what happens with the landscape of the conferences.”
For now, the one description that best describes the entire state of Division-III hockey landscape is uncertainty. Much of that has to do with the WIAC’s decision to wait until 2014-2015 before taking its schools out of the NCHA, leaving all of the affected schools time to decide on how to proceed.
“We wanted to give everyone in the NCHA ample notice and allow for discussions to take place within the current NCHA membership about what is best for everybody as we look forward to 2014-2015,” Karner said. “We had no interest in announcing that we were departing, and that we were departing (right) now. That’s not our style, and we did not want what is currently happening in many Division I conferences.”
That provides little reassurance to Kronschnabel, who is left to contemplate the future existence of a league that has produced nine national champions since 1988.
“The WIAC felt that this was something that they had to do, and it’s something that’s been on their (back) burner for a number of years,” Kronschnabel said. “(Now our league)’s got two years to figure all of this out, (but) no one is putting any emergency acceleration on deciding (how to proceed).”