In terms of competition level, CCHA going out on a high note

What do you say about a league that has sent five different teams in the past six years to the NCAA championship game? What do you say about a league whose last representative in that group is a school that plays in Division II in all of its other sports?

And what do you say about a league whose 2011-12 national runner-up team was eliminated from conference quarterfinal play by a team that finished in the league’s cellar?

You could say that such a league has finally arrived. What a shame that the CCHA’s arrival coincides with its departure.

“As far as level of competition,” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said, “I think the last year and this coming year might be the brightest spot in the history of the [conference] and it’s unfortunate that we won’t have it anymore.”

CCHA teams are splitting apart after the end of the 2012-13 season, some to the Big Ten, some to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, some to the WCHA and one to Hockey East.

In a league where every game is worth three points, it’s remarkable that 11 points separated the two teams tied for second place from the two teams tied for eighth at the end of last season — and that the parity about which coaches have waxed poetic for over a decade translated into equally dangerous and not equally average.

Need further proof?

“It’s just ironic that the league’s probably as good and competitive as it’s ever been in its history,” Michigan State coach Tom Anastos said. “It’s really tough to win in the league.”

“Right now, in my opinion,” Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle said, “it’s the best league in the country, it’s the most competitive league in the country. When you look at the record over the last five years of our league nationally, we’ve certainly proven that, I think.

“I think it’s really tough for guys like Rick Comley and Ron Mason, Steve Cady, guys that have been a big part of building it, when they finally see it become the best league in the country — certainly one of the best leagues in the country — to see it break up.”

This season, the CCHA itself will pay tribute to guys like Comley, Mason, Cady and many others — great and lesser known — who contributed to the league’s 42 years, in keeping with the CCHA’s theme of celebrating the legacy. There’s still one season left, though, to write a happy ending for this conference.

Don’t say that this is the end

While every Division I team would like to win a national championship, one can’t help but think that there’s added motivation for the teams in the CCHA this season. There are several teams that stand a good chance at going far in the national tournament because closer to home, there are at least half a dozen teams in the CCHA with a legitimate chance at capturing the last Mason Cup.

“I think there’s a handful of teams that are the team to beat,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “Last year, I don’t think anybody … thought that Ferris State would win our league, but they did and they deserved to. It might have been a bit of a surprise to some of us, but maybe not to them.

“I think this year we’ve got a handful of teams that could win it and not surprise anyone, and Notre Dame would be one of those teams. And then there’s a handful of teams that could win and be a surprise team like Ferris State. That’s what you get every year in this league and that’s why the league is so competitive.”

Will the Bulldogs be able to repeat their regular season championship without the seniors that guided them last year? Will Western Michigan be able to maintain that newfound level of excellence that led it to the conference playoff championship? How about Miami and Michigan — two teams picked to finish near the top, yet two teams without a clue as to who will start in net? And Notre Dame picked at or right next to the top after last year’s mediocrity?

Think of all that we’ve been through

No one is more of a CCHA company man than Ferris State coach Bob Daniels. Winning the conference title is as strong a goal as any he and his staff set for the Bulldogs. It’s not surprising, then, that Daniels is one of the more torn coaches about the end of the conference.

“It’s bittersweet — bitter’s probably too strong a word,” Daniels said. “It’s sad and sweet, I guess, at the same time. I grew up in the CCHA, spent 25 years within the league, had just tremendous amount of respect for the coaches that I was able to work with — Red Berenson and Ron Mason, who I really think helped to guide the coaches in a level of professionalism amongst all the coaches.”

The last word at the start of the league’s last season belongs to Berenson.

“It’s disappointing that it’ll be the last year,” he said. “I’m disappointed the way the cards fell, and the way everyone left the league so quickly. That’s the way it is. I guess a lot of teams will have one foot out of the door and one foot in the door this last year.”

The guess here is that the teams with both feet in the door are the ones who will excel.

Here are my picks for the final CCHA season. Click on a team’s name to get to its preview.

1. Michigan

Head coach: Red Berenson, 29th season

2011-12 record: 24-13-4, 15-9-4-1 CCHA

2011-12 CCHA finish: Tie, second

2011-12 season ender: 3-2 overtime loss to Cornell, Midwest Regional

2012-13 predicted ceiling/basement: First/third

Quotable: “Like everyone else, we think we should have a better year this year than we had last year, even though we ended up in second place and got to the CCHA championship. We still think we can do a little better, go a little higher and be a little more consistent in small areas and we have to answer some questions about this year’s team.” — Berenson

2. Notre Dame

Head coach: Jeff Jackson, eighth season

2011-12 record: 19-18-3, 12-13-3-0 CCHA

2011-12 CCHA finish: Tie, eighth

2011-12 season ender: 3-1 loss to Michigan, CCHA playoff quarterfinals

2012-13 predicted ceiling/basement: First/sixth

Quotable: “Like everyone, we have high expectations going into the year. For the last two years we have had a fairly young team. Now, especially led by a fairly big junior class, we are a much more experienced team. I think that hopefully will help us learn to be more consistent on a regular basis and also be able to embrace expectations as opposed to letting them overcome us.” — Jackson

3. Miami

Head coach: Enrico Blasi, 14th season

2011-12 record: 24-15-2, 15-11-2-1 CCHA

2011-12 CCHA finish: Fourth

2011-12 season ender: 4-3 overtime loss to Massachusetts-Lowell, East Regional

2012-13 predicted ceiling/basement: Second/sixth

Quotable: “We expect to improve every day and make sure that we’re playing our best hockey at the right time. But more importantly, more so than any other year, we have 12 new faces on our team and so our philosophy of just trying to be the best that we can be each and every day is really important going into the year.” — Blasi

4. Western Michigan

Head coach: Andy Murray, second season

2011-12 record: 21-14-6, 14-10-4-4 CCHA

2011-12 CCHA finish: Tie, second

2011-12 season ender: 3-1 loss to North Dakota, West Regional

2012-13 predicted ceiling/basement: Third/sixth

Quotable: “I liked our recent history last year, my first year, and I’d like to reference that history if I can. We’d like nothing better than to keep the Mason Cup here in Kalamazoo in Western Michigan.” — Murray

5. Michigan State

Head coach: Tom Anastos, second season

2011-12 record: 19-16-4, 14-11-3-2 CCHA

2011-12 CCHA finish: Fifth

2011-12 season ender: 3-1 loss to Union, East Regional

2012-13 predicted ceiling/basement: Fifth/ninth

Quotable: “We have 12 new players here. With that, there’s lots of youthful enthusiasm for sure. I think that’s pretty exciting, but at the same time we’re pretty green and inexperienced and that will present some challenges for us, I would anticipate.” — Anastos

6. Ferris State

Head coach: Bob Daniels, 21st season

2011-12 record: 26-12-5, 16-7-5-1 CCHA

2011-12 CCHA finish: First

2011-12 season ender: 4-1 loss to Boston College, NCAA championship game

2012-13 predicted ceiling/basement: Second/seventh

Quotable: “While last year was a great season and [we can] maybe build on that and maybe prove that what we did a year ago we can do again or duplicate, our goals haven’t changed at all from what they were going into last season.” — Daniels

7. Lake Superior State

Head coach: Jim Roque, eighth season

2011-12 record: 18-17-5, 11-13-4-4 CCHA

2011-12 CCHA finish: Seventh

2011-12 season ender: 5-2 loss to Western Michigan, CCHA playoff tournament

2012-13 predicted ceiling/basement: Fifth/11th

Quotable: “Not only did we lose some good seniors, we lost some good underclassmen. So we will be a little young to start the year, but I think we have some really good freshmen last year that had a lot of minutes and we will be looking for those guys to step up. We have an excellent goalie in Kevin Kapalka and we return five very good defensemen, so I think defensively we will be fine.” — Roque

8. Ohio State

Head coach: Mark Osiecki, third season

2011-12 record: 15-15-5, 11-12-5-1 CCHA

2011-12 CCHA finish: Tie, eighth

2011-12 season ender: 4-2 loss to Notre Dame, CCHA playoff tournament

2012-13 predicted ceiling/basement: Fifth/11th

Quotable: “We feel like there was a big transition here when we came in as a staff. For us this season we want to build on it. Two aspects of it is find a way to get over that hump and understand it and handle success, but also we’re in the process of trying to find some leaders within our dressing room. That’s a tough deal to come by.” — Osiecki

9. Northern Michigan

Head coach: Walt Kyle, 11th season

2011-12 record: 17-14-6, 11-11-6-3 CCHA

2011-12 CCHA finish: Sixth

2011-12 season ender: 4-1 loss to Bowling Green, CCHA playoff tournament

2012-13 predicted ceiling/basement: Fifth/10th

Quotable: “It’s one of those years we lost three real good forwards last year, guys who logged a lot of ice time with us. I’m not a guy who really believes in putting hard expectations on a team, certainly. We’re going to try to win every game that we play and we’re going to try to win a league championship. That should be every team’s goal.” — Kyle

10. Bowling Green

Head coach: Chris Bergeron, third season

2011-12 record: 14-25-5, 5-19-4-3 CCHA

2011-12 CCHA finish: 11th

2011-12 season ender: 4-1 loss to Miami, CCHA third-place game

2012-13 predicted ceiling/basement: Sixth/11th

Quotable: “There were times last year when I lost focus on the fact that we making progress as hard as that was to believe, based on results. I think that the run at the end of the year absolutely proved it. Progress was being made, we were getting good experience — even in losing in negative situations — and ultimately all that kind of stuff was part of our process and our journey here.” — Bergeron

11. Alaska

Head coach: Dallas Ferguson, fifth season

2011-12 record: 12-20-4, 8-16-4-2 CCHA

2011-12 CCHA finish: 10th

2011-12 season ender: 2-0 loss to Lake Superior State, CCHA playoff tournament

2012-13 predicted ceiling/basement: Eighth/11th

Quotable: “Something that’s always been important for us is just to focus in on process and not get distracted with anything that we can’t control or worrying about the end of the season … or how all those things are going to play out. I think if you work the process, that’s going to give you the best chance to be successful.” — Ferguson