The 2012-13 season will be bittersweet for the teams leaving the WCHA, especially for Colorado College coach and alumnus Scott Owens.
“For me, it is,” Owens said. “I have been connected to the WCHA as a player and coach for 22 years. I will miss being part of the WCHA. On the other hand, I am excited about being part of the new league.”
Minnesota and Wisconsin are leaving for the start-up Big Ten hockey conference which began with the creation of the new varsity program at Penn State. That gave the Big Ten the six schools required for a league with Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State leaving the CCHA.
That prompted Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota and St. Cloud State to leave the WCHA to start the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, which includes former CCHA schools Miami and Western Michigan. Both new leagues begin play in October 2013.
That move sparked some anger, but the passage of time has soothed most hurt by the moves.
“From my perspective, there was never any hard feelings,” Michigan Tech coach and alumnus Mel Pearson said. “I wish people had been more patient. Even with the departure of Minnesota and Wisconsin, it would have been a really strong league. But change is inevitable.”
Michigan Tech will be the only remaining original member left in the WCHA, which formed in 1951. The MacNaughton Cup stays with Tech, keeping it in the new WCHA. Even the Huskies left the WCHA for a years and the league has included Notre Dame (now headed to Hockey East), Michigan and Michigan State over the years.
Pearson admitted it was hard to see a program with the tradition of Michigan Tech not included in the NCHC, especially when the school helped future NCHC members Duluth, Omaha and St. Cloud at one point or another.
Most of the teams in the Big Ten, NCHC and WCHA will continue to play non-conference contests against each other. The three leagues need each other, which is a good reason to mend bridges.
“At the end of the day, it is reality,” Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore said. “We are excited about the new league. The game will not change. Just the teams are.”
The changes give the teams leaving the WCHA one last chance at the MacNaughton and postseason Broadmoor trophies. Not that any of them really needs extra motivation.
“We are all wired that way,” Pearson said. “Every night, everyone is going out there to play their best and win.”
Nor is the future dim for any of the three leagues. With the absorption of five teams from the disbanding CCHA, the new-look WCHA will have nine teams, including 2012 NCAA runner-up Ferris State.
“There have been a lot of changes in the league over time,” said Denver coach George Gwozdecky. “The WCHA has always been a good league in the past, now and will continue to be in the future.”
Here are links to WCHA team previews. Click the school’s name for a full preview with capsule information.
The Seawolves hope to rediscover the formula of stout defense and opportunistic offense it rode to the 2011 WCHA Final Five thanks to added speed throughout the lineup.
The Beavers lost their mainstay in goal, Dan Bakala, and their big man on the blue line, Brad Hunt. BSU again will rely on 2011-12 leading scorer Jordan George to lead a team that was punchless on offense last season.
The expected departure of Jaden Schwartz for the NHL last spring and the graduation of center Nick Dineen and defenseman Gabe Guentzel left holes the incoming freshmen and returning upperclassmen must fill.
A stout defense with considerable depth in net thanks to the return of Sam Brittain, Andy Murray and Juho Olkinuora give the Pioneers the foundation they need to challenge for the league title.
There’s a restored faith in Tech’s program with Mel Pearson going into his second year behind the bench, but key pieces like Brett Olson and Jordan Baker who made the improvements possible, are not in the mix this season.
The offense is so well-balanced and the blue line is so sturdy, the Gophers will have high success no matter who is in net. Not much is gone from the team that went to the Frozen Four last season.
The cupboard looks pretty bare with Hobey Baker Award winner Jack Connolly gone along with the graduations of offensive threat Travis Oleksuk and goalie Kenny Reiter plus JT Brown’s signature on a pro contract. It could be a rebuilding year for the Bulldogs.
The Mavericks have been excited about what the talent they’ve reeled in over the past couple years. This is the season for sophomores like Jean-Paul Lafontaine and Matt Leitner to shine and touted freshman Teddy Blueger to jump right in.
A tumultuous offseason with the loss of key scorers and a prized recruit to Canadian major juniors raises a lot of questions, which include the transition of well-regarded goalie Anthony Stolarz from the NAHL to the WCHA.
North Dakota will challenge for the league title if two-time preseason rookie of the year Rocco Grimaldi is fully recovered from knee surgery and either junior Clarke Saunders or freshman Zane Gothberg fills the hole left by the departure of Aaron Dell in goal.
Almost everyone from a solid group of defenseman led by Nick Jensen returns. The defense, a confident sophomore goalie in Ryan Faragher and a top line that includes Ben Hanowski and Drew LeBlanc has many picking SCSU to finish in the upper half of the WCHA.
Fans hope returning 15 of its top 16 scorers, including senior forward Mark Zengerle (50 points last season) will offset the loss of two-time All-American defenseman Justin Schultz to the pros.
3. North Dakota
4. St. Cloud State
7. Minnesota State
9. Michigan Tech
10. Colorado College
11. Bemidji State
2. North Dakota
4. St. Cloud State
5. Colorado College
7. Michigan Tech
10. Minnesota State
11. Bemidji State