As USCHO.com’s Todd Milewski first reported, the WCHA voted unanimously on Thursday to lift the league’s moratorium on expansion. This could be the first step in saving four NCAA Division I programs, namely the four members of the CHA.
The best news from the vote belongs to Bemidji State. A perfect geographic fit, the Beavers would likely be the first team to file their application for membership to the WCHA. What’s left, then, are three teams of varying georgraphic location: Alabama-Huntsville, Niagara and Robert Morris.
Niagara and Robert Morris seem perfect fits for an eastern conference. Many have thrown out Atlantic Hockey as the sensible home – Niagara is right next to Canisius while Robert Morris is a short ride from Mercyhurst. The downside for the conference, though, is accepting two additional members lessens the chance for each team in the conference to advance to the NCAA tournament. With the league typically producing its only bid through an automatic qualifier, few schools would want to reduce their odds from its current 1 in 10 to 1 in 12.
A solution that has been discussed in the past was dividing Atlantic Hockey into two, six-team conferences. Doing so would allow for two automatic bids (increasing the odds from 1 in 10 to 1 in 6) and, in essense, simpy transfer the current CHA autobid over to Atlantic Hockey.
This seems like a reasonable suggestion but there are dangers involved. What would happen any of these programs ran into financial troubles (we all know what today’s economy is like and it could easily get worse) and had to drop the program. That would possibly create the need to retract to a single large conference rather than two small conferences and possibly eliminate an NCAA automatic berth that has been extremely helpful to emerging programs in the CHA and Atlantic Hockey as they continue to grow.
Regardless of how this shakes out, Alabama-Huntsville remains the program with no home right now. This school is geographically challenged, with the closest Division I school 565 miles away in Bowling Green, OH. Does that mean that the best fit for Hutsville would be the CCHA? Quite possibly.
But if all these scenarios played out, what you’d have left is a 12-team Atlantic Hockey, a 13-team CCHA and an 11-team WCHA. The intelligent solution at that point would be to move a CCHA school to the WCHA, but that’s something that’s likely much easier said than done. And if you did, who would you suggest? Alaska – to pair with Alaska Anchorage? Nebraska-Omaha, the CCHA’s western-most program in the continental U.S.?
These are all questions that will need to be addressed over time. But Thursday’s vote makes asking these questions feasible. And that is very good thing for college hockey.