Commentary: Conference changes weaken the sport

What to make of the reports that five teams from the WCHA and up to three from the CCHA will be bolting their respective conferences to form a new “super league?” After months of rumors and rampant speculation about new alignments and new conferences in the wake of the announcement in March of the formation of the Big Ten hockey conference, the report on Thursday took many by surprise.

You knew there were going to be changes, such as the possible location of the Final Five tournament, but few thought that the WCHA would collapse. Some quotes since the story broke indicate that WCHA officials intended to try to poach Miami and Notre Dame from the CCHA, having already poached Nebraska-Omaha. Instead, if Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota do form their own conference along with Miami, it looks like the WCHA, long considered the powerhouse conference in college hockey (rivaled only by Hockey East), will soon become a “second-tier” conference.

That’s not a knock on the programs at the other WCHA schools. Bemidji State was in the Frozen Four just two years ago, and St. Cloud State has made the NCAA tournament seven times. However, with the departure of those five, as well as the departure of Minnesota and Wisconsin for the Big Ten, the WCHA could go from being the conference with the most NCAA Division I hockey championships to one with no D-I NCAA hockey championships (if Michigan Tech sees fit to leave for the CCHA; Bemidji State and Minnesota State won D-II hockey titles).

There are possible good outcomes from the realignment, as my fellow columnist Chris Lerch details in his piece, and yes, the possible expansion of college hockey is a good one, if it happens. For now, though, let’s take a moment to mourn the demise of the WCHA.

Founded in 1951, the WCHA is the oldest college hockey conference in the nation. Though many of the New England schools played each other for years (Brown first played Harvard in 1898), the ECAC was not founded until 1961, and the CCHA started play in 1971. Hockey East was created in 1983, in response to a possible realignment at the time, when the Ivy schools were talking of forming an Ivy League conference.

It’s instructional to view that history when contemplating what this new “super conference” might do to the WCHA. The departure of Boston College, Boston University, New Hampshire and Providence from the ECAC changed the landscape of Eastern hockey. The intra-league play between New England schools and those in New York made the ECAC a stronger conference.

Since the formation of Hockey East, only two ECAC teams have won an NCAA title — Rensselaer in 1985 and Harvard in 1989 — and an ECAC team hasn’t made the title game since 1990, when Colgate fell to Wisconsin. Instead of several strong teams, the ECAC usually produces only one that realistically has a shot in the tournament.

The presences of storied programs like Denver, North Dakota, Colorado College and Minnesota-Duluth made it easier for the smaller WCHA teams to recruit good players, just for the possibility of playing against those teams. If you weren’t quite good enough to pull on a Badgers jersey or Sioux jersey and play in front 13,000 screaming fans, you could do so by playing for one of their conference rivals.

With the creation of the “super conference,” and Notre Dame’s likely decision to either join with Miami in the new conference or defect to Hockey East, the college hockey landscape will become much more stratified than it is now. You will basically have two conferences that are deep top to bottom — Hockey East occupying its normal top-heavy spot — and then two or three conferences that will get a chance to have one, perhaps two, teams go to the dance and maybe play spoiler for a round.

I’ll also, as a WCHA writer, be sad to lose my regular talks with coaches like Troy Jutting, Dave Shyiak, Bob Motzko and Tom Serratore when writing recaps of DU and CC games. Their programs were never quite deep enough that you thought they could win the WCHA, but they were always competitive with their more celebrated brethren, and could throw a scare into you. They are also fantastic quotes.

While in the long run, the game will flourish, this realignment will, for the short term, weaken college hockey as a sport overall.