Decade In Review: Past 10 years times of change for WCHA as teams come, go, with future uncertain

Tanner Kero skates the puck up ice during one of his dominant four years with Michigan Tech (photo: USCHO).

If there is one word that best sums up what the WCHA has been through since 2010, it is “change.”

Entering the 2010s, the WCHA was made up of a mixture of schools of varying sizes from Wisconsin and Minnesota to Michigan Tech and Bemidji State.

With the announcement that Penn State was boosting both their men’s and women’s programs from club hockey in the ACHA to NCAA Division I, the fate of the WCHA was sealed.

After the 2012-13 season, the college hockey landscape changed as the WCHA lost both Wisconsin and Minnesota to the Big Ten. In response to their exodus, the league was quickly shaken again by the losses of Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota Duluth, North Dakota, Omaha and St. Cloud State to form a new league of their own.

Fortunately for the WCHA, the former CCHA went through a similar situation with the losses of Michigan, Michigan State, Miami and Western Michigan. The four remaining WCHA teams joined forces with the remainder of the CCHA to form a new-look WCHA to form a nine-team league with old WCHA stalwarts Michigan Tech, Minnesota State, Bemidji State and Alaska Anchorage welcoming in Alaska, Lake Superior State, Northern Michigan, Ferris State and Bowling Green by the beginning of Oct. 2011.

On Jan. 17, 2013, Alabama Huntsville was also added, giving the WCHA an even 10 teams.

As former Michigan Tech and current Michigan head coach Mel Pearson put it, the new-look WCHA featured teams of similar size and budget, which should make for a very competitive experience for all schools involved.

He has not been proven wrong.

Since the realignment, the conference has seen Ferris State, Minnesota State, Michigan Tech and Bemidji State all win regular-season titles, with only Minnesota State winning multiple times.

Team of the decade: Minnesota State

The Mavericks have emerged as the team everyone is chasing.

They finished just one point behind Ferris State in 2013-14. The two teams battled for the WCHA Final Five title, with the Mavericks emerging on top.

The Mavericks then won the regular-season and the playoff title in 2014-15 by bettering the Huskies on both counts. In 2015-16, the Huskies and Mavericks tied for the regular season title, but did not get the chance to face each other in the playoffs as Ferris State eked out a 1-0 win over the Huskies in the semifinals before defeating the Mavericks in the finals.

The 2016-17 season saw Bemidji State explode to the top of the WCHA regular-season standings, topping the Huskies by 10 points. The playoffs saw a new format as the higher seeds played at home throughout. The Huskies ended up hosting the championship game by virtue of the Falcons eliminating the Beavers in two games. The Huskies then topped the Falcons in double-overtime in front of one of the largest crowds in MacInnes Student Ice Arena history.

The Mavericks won the regular-season title again in 2017-18, but were eliminated from the WCHA playoffs by the Huskies for the second straight year. The Huskies had to travel to Marquette to face the Wildcats, defeating them to earn a second straight playoff title.

Minnesota State won the regular-season title again in 2018-19, finishing 12 points better than the Wildcats. The Mavericks then swept the Chargers and the Lakers to earn the right to host the championship game against the Falcons, who swept the Huskies and Wildcats to get there. The Mavericks topped the Falcons 3-2 in overtime to earn the playoff title.

Player of the decade: Tanner Kero, Michigan Tech

While the WCHA does not feature the star power it once did with schools like North Dakota, Wisconsin and Minnesota, who all have produced a steady stream of NHL draft picks, there have still been a number of players who have had an impact during their time in the conference.

None more so that Hancock, Mich., native Tanner Kero, who joined the Huskies for the start of the 2011-12 season.

Recruited by former Michigan Tech coach Jamie Russell, Kero played his entire college career for Pearson before the latter moved on to Michigan.

During his freshman year, Kero was part of a Huskies team that finished eighth, losing the final two games of the regular season to Colorado College. The next weekend, he helped the Huskies sweep the Tigers and earn a berth in the Final Five.

Two seasons later, Kero and the Huskies finished fifth in the new-look WCHA. They lost in the playoffs to the Falcons, but learned a lot in the process that would help in future seasons.

As a senior, Kero scored 20 goals and 46 points, becoming the first Huskies skater to lead the WCHA in scoring since Shawn Harrison did it in 1988-89. The Huskies jumped again to second in the WCHA standings and made it to the Final Five championship game. Kero also served as a co-captain, becoming a hero to young Copper Country area hockey players.

In all, Kero scored 55 goals and 111 points in 153 games at Michigan Tech, all the while helping the program reach heights not seen since the 1970s, eventually leading to one regular-season and two playoff titles in recent years.

Before the start of the 2019-20 season, seven schools, Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State, and Northern Michigan announced plans to leave the WCHA and form a new conference amongst themselves.

In November, Alabama Huntsville announced their own plans to leave the conference as well, leaving the two Alaska schools as the only remaining teams in the league after the end of the 2020-21 season.