Please excuse the temporary bout of morbidity I’m about to throw into one of the most exciting times in the college hockey season.
At some point or another, we all wonder how we’ll be remembered after we’re gone. Some of us would like to be known for having been kind to others. Some of us, for having made a lasting impact on our world.
What will the CCHA be remembered for? What about this incarnation of the WCHA? And the NCHA?
When the CCHA Championship wraps up on Sunday, the league will essentially be gone. Yes, some of its teams will move on to the NCAA tournament wearing CCHA patches on their sweaters and, yes, the trophies will go on display sometime down the road at Bowling Green, an original member.
But this week is the last hurrah for the league, aged 42, and longtime friends of the league will be offering up their memories.
Fred Pletsch has been with the CCHA since 2001, first as director of communications, then as associate commissioner and, since 2011, as commissioner.
When I asked him this week how he’d like the league to be remembered after it’s gone, he brought up four areas.
• For being inclusive.
Pletsch offered a reminder that the league formed in 1971 because its charter members couldn’t get into the WCHA.
“Throughout its history, I think the CCHA opened up to anybody that showed interest in starting a program and committing to hockey,” Pletsch said.
• For its talent.
Beyond seven Hobey Baker Award winners, Pletsch argues that the league set the tone for high-profile college players in the mid-1980s, when Michigan State’s Craig Simpson was the No. 2 overall pick in the 1985 NHL Entry Draft and the Spartans’ Joe Murphy went at No. 1 overall a year later.
“That had NHL people sit up and take notice,” Pletsch said. “And it was good for all the other players of the league because as the scouts went to watch the Simpsons and Murphys, they were seeing that there were a lot of other good players in the league.”
• For a pioneering spirit.
Fred Jacoby, the CCHA’s first commissioner, got the league a spot in the NCAA tournament.
Bill Beagan, who succeeded Jacoby, put together national television deals that made CCHA games available in more than 50 million homes, Pletsch said.
And Pletsch credited his predecessor, Tom Anastos, with pushing to eliminate obstruction even before the NHL’s post-lockout crackdown.
• For a sense of united purpose.
Pletsch related that at one point, Michigan and Michigan State gave up lucrative TV contracts of their own so the league could put together a deal.
“Obviously, the ultimate demise of the CCHA was the result of decisions made that were out of the control of the coaches and the administrators that are in the trenches,” he said. “There was always such a cooperative spirit in the room to do what’s best for the sport nationally.”
My experience with the CCHA has been from a distance, but I’ve always thought that, as a whole, it was an underappreciated, misunderstood entity.
It has lived in the shadow of the WCHA for a lot of its existence despite producing great players and featuring some of the game’s iconic coaches.
It has been lampooned in some parts for instituting the shootout and for denying admission to Alabama-Huntsville when the Chargers were becoming homeless. Those, however, were administrative decisions made by schools facing severe financial crunches — an element to the stories that I’m not sure ever was fully understood.
My hockey-covering career has been based in two other conferences, both of which also are undergoing major changes this offseason.
The Division III NCHA men’s league, which has produced the last three national champions, is crumbling as the Wisconsin state schools reorganize under their Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference umbrella.
St. Norbert and St. Scholastica are moving to the MCHA, and the dynamics of western D-III hockey are getting a big jolt.
I’ll remember the NCHA as featuring some pretty intense rivalries and great characters. I’m sure those rivalries will realign but the old ones were pretty good.
And while the CCHA prepares to close up shop after this weekend, the WCHA Final Five will be a farewell gathering of sorts, too.
Partisan fans that have sat next to each other for years at the Xcel Energy Center will go their separate ways next season, when the WCHA loses two schools to the Big Ten and six others to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
The five teams that were left in the CCHA after the moves to the Big Ten, NCHC and Hockey East (Notre Dame) are headed for the new-look WCHA so, again, new rivalries will form.
But for those of us who grew up watching the WCHA of Wisconsin and Minnesota, of Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota, it might be too different to recognize.
How will we remember the WCHA as it stands today? I think for me, it’ll be in the atmosphere of a Final Five. We all know that the league has its blemishes and has made us shake our heads more times than we care to count, but it sure can put on a good show.
So with the CCHA and the WCHA of today, it’s time to enjoy what little is left. Soon enough, memories are all we’ll have to go by.
How will you remember these leagues that are changing or disappearing? Leave a comment below.