The CCHA lives!
OK, not quite.
Alaska and Ohio State aren’t suiting up against one another on a yearly basis as they did in the old days of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
And when Michigan State drove up north this year to visit Lake Superior State, it was a relic of a bygone era, not a sign of things to come.
The reality is the CCHA died – and was remembered fondly – in March 2013. The conference was one of college hockey’s standard bearers before realignment consigned it to the antique bin, but it went out with a bang. Players and coaches from the league’s 42 seasons congregated in downtown Detroit to bid it adieu with a mix of good hockey, a cavalcade of stories and – well, let’s be honest – a few drinks as well.
The 11 teams that remained at the league’s demise – six in the Great Lakes State (Michigan, Michigan State, Ferris State, Western Michigan, Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan), three in Ohio (Miami, Bowling Green and those aforementioned Buckeyes) and one each in neighboring Indiana (Notre Dame) and far-flung Alaska – have scattered into four different conferences at the moment.
So no, the Mason Cup won’t be raised ever again. Those days are over. But a few guys who know what it’s like to hold the prestigious trophy over their heads now suit up for the ECHL-leading Toledo Walleye, providing a fitting tribute to the league’s legacy.
The Glass City has long been the site of a border battle, a disputed slice of land on the Ohio-Michigan border. Considering nine of the CCHA’s final 11 teams played in those two states, it seems like poetic justice that 12 players this season and 21 over the past two years for the ECHL’s Walleye played college hockey in the now-defunct conference.
“We still talk about it,” said Walleye forward Alden Hirschfeld, a Miami alumnus. “We loved the CCHA. We thought it was one of the top leagues in the country. Obviously, it’s cool for the Big Ten teams to be in with their football rivals, and Miami is in the NCHC, which is great as well. But there are so many great memories from the CCHA that a lot of us will have the rest of our lives.”
Contributions have been varied, with players from 10 different CCHA schools – all but Lake Superior State – suiting up in Toledo the past two seasons. They have performed roles ranging from starring – former Western Michigan forward Shane Berschbach led the team in scoring last season and is among the league leaders in assists this year – to small (Ohio State product Dustin Carlson played just 10 minutes in net last season).
On the former end of the spectrum is Evan Rankin, who played 143 games at Notre Dame. After a year in the CHL, he linked up with the Walleye for the 2009-10 season and is now the franchise’s all-time leading goal scorer having reached the 100-goal plateau for the team Jan. 20.
That accomplishment earned Rankin a chance to be honored four days later in front of Toledo’s city council, where council president Steven Steel, an alumnus of nearby BGSU, pointed out the old CCHA rivalry between his Falcons and Rankin’s Fighting Irish before the forward addressed the body.
“When I came to Toledo originally seven years ago, I was just coming in my mind to play hockey,” Rankin told the body. “I knew we had an amazing rink, but I didn’t know the community around it was so strong.
“Toledo is home.”
That feeling is no mistake, it seems, as the Walleye have cast their net as locally as any team in the league when it comes to finding talent.
Hirschfeld grew up in the Toledo suburb of Sylvania, and the roster includes such native Michiganders as Berschbach, who is from the Detroit suburb of Clawson, and Rankin, who hails from just outside Kalamazoo.
Considering how many of the players who came through the CCHA ranks share similar stories – many played together growing up in the area and rooted for the Detroit Red Wings – there’s already a common bond when they arrive in Toledo. Many of the team’s returning players had a chance to pursue other offers heading into this season, but the core group wanted to return to Toledo to play together and chase a Kelly Cup run.
“We’re real lucky to have this in Toledo, and it’s such a great organization to play for,” said Berschbach, who stayed with Hirschfeld on a recruiting visit to Miami before picking WMU. “We’ve been real fortunate to stay close to home, but play for a great team.
“I think guys all had different offers, but we are all comfortable and we like to come back here. We know the group we have and the potential. Being comfortable every year is a big thing.”
The ties to both the area and the CCHA’s history don’t end there.
Jeff Lerg, a Livonia, Mich., native who won a national championship with Michigan State in 2007, holds nearly every Walleye goaltending record and re-signed with the team Jan. 28. Austin Wuthrich was on the Walleye squad a year ago and holds a place in CCHA history having scored the game-winning goal in the last game ever, the ’13 title contest his Notre Dame squad won over Michigan.
So no, the CCHA isn’t exactly back. One day, the ties in Toledo will run their course and those who suited up in the conference will hang up the skates.
But in the meantime, the memories remain fresh right in the heart of where the conference used to live.
“That’s the cool thing,” Hirschfeld said. “Toledo is a good spot, right in the middle of everything. It’s cool to be with a lot of guys who played in the CCHA on our team right here. We talk about memories, whether it’s going up to the CCHA championship at Joe Louis or the awards banquet there at the Fox Theatre.
“They’re all good memories, and a lot of guys from Ferris or Western or Miami or Notre Dame, we all share a lot of the same memories.”