Even without a global pandemic, the 2020-21 WCHA season was already destined to be a weird one.
Seven of the league’s ten members had already announced way back in June of 2019 that they would be leaving the conference to reform the CCHA after the conclusion of this year. It was already going to be strange to be celebrating 70 years of one of the oldest college hockey conferences in existence knowing that its position post-2021 is in doubt.
Then the pandemic hit, just before the conclusion of the WCHA playoffs. College hockey shut down for six months. Seasons were delayed. Programs were suspended. Some were lost.
But, as if a miracle, the WCHA will indeed play out its 70th season.
“It felt like some days we would never get here,” Lake Superior State coach Damon Whitten said during the WCHA’s annual media day earlier this month. “To be opening our preseason media day in November, it feels strange. We should have been a month and a half into the season.”
Instead, the WCHA is going to have to make do with truncated schedules, playing conference teams as nonconference games and learning to deal with cancelations and postponements as they come thick and fast. The league had started its season this past weekend, with six teams in action. But positive COVID-tests from both Minnesota State and Northern Michigan. The Mavericks and the Wildcats have now canceled or postponed all of their games for the next two weeks.
“I think if we’re surprised by a cancelation and postponement, then shame on us,” Bowling Green coach Ty Eigner said. “We’ve tried to tell our guys to focus on the things they can control and hopefully with the procedures in place, and the fact that our sport is in the winter and kicking it off when students aren’t on campus and try to the best of our abilities to be as cautious and safe as possible, hopefully we get a chance to play all 18 league games, and the playoffs and it goes off without a hitch, but the reality is the chances of that happening are not too great.”
This adds to an already-shortened slate of games, as Alaska Anchorage announced on Nov. 13 — just two days after the league’s media day — that they were suspending all winter sports for the 2020-21 season, including hockey. The Seawolves had already announced they were cutting the hockey program after this campaign. There’s a good chance they will see their program end without playing another game.
“It certainly has been trying,” Seawolves coach Matt Curley told the Anchorage Daily News last week. “Our focus right now is to right this ship and make way for our survival because I think for a lot of the guys, their best opportunity is to continue to be here.”
The Seawolves are hoping for an outpouring of support and donations similar to that received by Alabama Huntsville this summer. The Chargers, too, had the plug pulled on their program by the UAH administrators, only to be given a last-minute reprieve by hitting a $750,000 funding goal, allowing them to survive for this season.
One more season of Charger hockey was great news, but it got even better earlier this month, when a group including Minnesota Wild goaltender (and UAH’s most successful hockey alumnus) Cam Talbot announced a sizable donation to the program to keep it afloat for even longer.
New coach Lance West — himself an alumnus — said the UAH community is lucky to have the support.
“We went through a lot of stuff this year, with folding and coming back, and the WCHA worked hard and allowed us to do that, and we’re very thankful for that opportunity this year,” he said. “We had such a huge amount of support from fans and even people who weren’t fans of ours; the general hockey community in North America…. I was humbled by the amount of people that supported us in our comeback bid so we hope this year we can make them proud.”
So how are all of these issues going to add up on the ice? It’s hard to say exactly, but the consensus again seems to be that Minnesota State is once again going to be very good. Both the media and coaches polls have overwhelmingly backed the Mavericks to four-peat the MacNaughton Cup. Beyond that, though, it’s wide open. There are a number of teams that should compete for home ice, including Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Northern Michigan and Alaska.
But due to the strange nature of this season, perhaps the standings won’t matter as much at the end when all is said and done.
“Success has always been graded on wins and losses but in a year like this, I think success is being graded in a different way,” Ferris State coach Bob Daniels said. The idea that we’re going to be able to get on the ice and compete, that’s a success right there. I’m sure once the puck drops, if there’s two nets, a scoreboard, and a puck, winning is going to be important, but this whole situation has been a great lesson for everyone on collegiality. I’ve been excited to be a part of it.”
WCHA TEAM CAPSULES
Head coach: Lance West, entering his first season at UAH
2019-20 overall record: 2-26-6 (2-20-6 WCHA, tenth)
Key returning players: Junior forward Tyr Thompson (6-2-8), senior forward Connor Merkley (3-5-9), senior forward Connor Wood (4-3-7), junior defenseman Dayne Finnson (1-6-7), sophomore goaltender David Fessenden (0-4-0, .869 SV%, 4.44 GAA), junior forward Bauer Neudecker (0-6-6)
Key losses: Goaltender Mark Sinclair (2-22-6, .869, 3.86), forward Josh Latta (7-11-18), forward Christian Rajic (6-9-15), forward Austin Beaulieu (6-7-13), forward Jack Jeffers (6-6-12), forward Liam Izyk (3-8-11), defenseman Tanner Hickey (3-7-10)
Key additions: Defenseman Ayodele Adeniye (Carleton Place Canadians, CCHL), defenseman Brian Scoville (Langley Rivermen, BCHL), forward Tyrone Bronte (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights, NAHL), forward Frank Vittuci (Wellington Dukes, OJHL), forward Jonah Alexander (St. Michael’s Buzzers, OJHL), goaltender Derek Krall (Powell River Kings, BCHL)
2020-21 predictions: The Chargers program died this summer, only to be resuscitated by an outpouring of donations from around the hockey world to save them for at least a season. The university eventually announced an even greater commitment to the hockey program earlier this month, ensuring its survival for at least a few more years, but the damage had already been done. The Chargers lost nearly every significant contributor to their 2019-20 campaign, including goaltender Sinclair, who transferred to Michigan Tech, and leading scorer Latta, who went to UMass-Lowell. That leaves just two seniors and six juniors on the team, along with 13 freshmen. Head coach West said he knows the situation will be tough this year with so many newcomers to college hockey. It’s going to be tough for them to not finish last in the standings this year, but that’s not really important for UAH this year. Gaining valuable experience for all those newcomers is going to be the Chargers’ main focus, and any added victories will be a big bonus.
Jack’s prediction: 9th
Daver’s prediction: 9th
Head coach: Erik Largen, entering his third season at Alaska
2019-20 overall record: 15-15-5 (14-9-5 WCHA, fourth)
Key returning players: Junior defenseman Chris Jandric (5-17-22), junior goaltender Gustavs Grigals (7-5-3, .906 SV%, 2.34 GAA), senior forward Max Newton (9-28-27), senior forward Justin Young (9-12-21)
Key losses: Forward Steven Jandric (13-20-33), goaltender Anton Martinsson (9-10-2, .919 SV%, 2.51 GAA), forward Kylar Hope (10-10-20), forward Tyler Kline (8-11-19), forward Colton Leitner (6-10-16)
Key additions: Forward Harrison Israels (Oakville Blades, OJHL), forward Jakob Breault (Aberdeen Wings, NAHL), Matt Koethe (Fairbanks Ice Dogs, NAHL), forward Brayden Nicholetts (Spruce Grove Saints, AJHL)
2020-21 predictions: The Nanooks surprised just about everybody last year, with their first winning record since 2014-15. They even got to host a home playoff series. Whether the Nanooks can improve on that and possibly win a playoff series this year depends largely on who steps up to replace goaltender Martinsson (who transferred to Providence) and leading scorer Jandric (who went to Denver). Those are two huge losses, but the good news is the Nanooks return plenty of scoring in Chris Jandric, Max Newtron and Justin Young. I don’t think they’re going to be battling for the title or anything, but expect Alaska to continue pushing for home ice in the playoffs.
Jack’s prediction: 5th
Daver’s prediction: 6th
Head coach: Tom Serratore, entering his 20th season at BSU
2019-20 overall record: 22-10-5 (20-5-3 WCHA, second)
Key returning players: Senior goaltender Zach Driscoll (21-8-4, .937 SV%, 1.63 GAA), junior forward Owen Sillinger (14-20-34), senior forward Aaron Miller (12-17-29), sophomore defensemen Elias Rosén (5-19-24), junior forward Alex Ierullo (7-14-21)
Key losses: Forward Adam Brady (19-15-34), defenseman Tommy Muck (4-16-20), forward Charlie Combs (12-6-18), forward Hampus Sjödahl (3-9-12)
Key additions: Forward Lukas Sillinger (Penticton Vees, BCHL), defenseman Jack Powell (Aberdeen Wings, NAHL), forward Austin Jouppi (Bismarck Bobcats, NAHL)
2020-21 predictions: Before the pandemic shut everything down, Beavers were so close to returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 10 years. This year, they return just about everybody from that team, including Driscoll, who was one of the best goaltenders and would have won the WCHA goaltending title in any season that Dryden McKay of MSU Mankato wasn’t playing. BSU will miss the scoring prowess of Adam Brady, who netted 19 last season, but do return a pair of double-digit scorers in Miller and Sillinger. It wouldn’t be surprising for them to be challenging for the MacNaughton Cup again and they will almost certainly be in the running for home ice in the WCHA playoffs.
Jack’s prediction: 3rd
Daver’s prediction: 2nd
Head coach: Ty Eigner, entering his second season at BGSU
2019-20 overall record: 21-13-4 (14-10-4 WCHA, fifth)
Key returning players: Senior forward Connor Ford (12-22-34), senior forward Brandon Kruse (9-25-34), senior forward Cameron Wright (20-7-27), senior goaltender Eric Dop (19-11-3, .902 SV%, 2.36 GAA), junior defenseman Will Cullen (7-9-16)
Key losses: Defenseman Alec Rauhauser (11-24-35), forward Frédéric Létourneau (6-15-21), forward Casey Linkenheld (5-5-10)
Key additions: Forward Gavin Gould (Michigan Tech, WCHA), forward Seth Fyten (Spruce Grove Saints, AJHL), forward Chrystopher Collin (Edmundston Blizzard, MJAHL), forward Ethan Scardina (Nanaimo Clippers, BCHL)
2020-21 predictions: Missing All-American Rauhauser is going to be a huge blow for BG, but perhaps the most surprising thing about the Falcons is who they didn’t lose this season. Highly-touted Vegas draft pick Kruse decided to return to school for his senior season, as did Ford and Wright. Dop remains a stalwart force in the nets for the Falcons, who still have a solid defensive corps returning despite the loss of Rauhauser. Expect this deep team to improve greatly on their fifth-place finish from a season ago and challenge Minnesota State for the title.
Jack’s prediction: 2nd
Daver’s prediction: 3rd
Head coach: Bob Daniels, entering his 29th season at Ferris State
2019-20 overall record: 7-26-2 (5-21-2-0 WCHA)
Key returning players: Sophomore defenseman Jake Willets (4-17-21), senior forward Marshall Moise (10-5-15), sophomore defenseman Blake Evennou (1-12-13), senior forward Liam MacDougall (2-11-13)
Key losses: Defenseman Nate Kallen (6-10-16), forward Jason Tackett (4-9-13), defenseman Joe Rutkowski (1-9-10)
Key additions: Goaltender Logan Stein (Waterloo, USHL), forward Antonio Venuto (Dubuque, USHL), forward Stepan Pokorny (Madison, USHL)
2020-21 predictions: The Bulldogs were picked to finish eighth in both the coaches and media polls this season. They suffered through a tough 2019-20 season with a bright spot being the growth of a pair of then-freshmen defenders in Willets and Evennou. Both are expected to continue to grow this season. The question remains where the offense will come from. The continued growth of Moise would certainly help as the Bulldogs look to climb into contention.
Jack’s prediction: 8th
Daver’s prediction: 8th
LAKE SUPERIOR STATE
Head coach: Damon Whitten, entering his seventh season at Lake Superior
2019-20 overall record: 14-23-4 (11-13-4-4 WCHA)
Key returning players: Senior goaltender Mareks Mitens (13-21-4, .911 SV%, 2.57 GAA), junior forward Ashton Calder (12-16-28), sophomore forward Louis Boudon (6-21-27)
Key losses: Forward Max Humitz (22-13-35), defenseman Collin Saccoman (6-3-9), forward Braden Gelsinger (3-5-8)
Key additions: Forward Joshua Wildauer (Coquitlam, BCHL), forward Benito Posa (Des Moines, USHL), defenseman Jeremy Gervais (Salmon Arm, BCHL)
2020-21 predictions: The Lakers will go as far as Mitens carries them. Staring down the barrel of a more forgiving schedule than they started with in 2019-20, the Lakers have a chance to build some confidence early and then work their way towards a home playoff berth. Add to Mitens’ strong play the continued development of Calder, and the Lakers have the makings of a better finish than the sixth-place predictions they have in the coaches’ and media polls.
Jack’s prediction: 7th
Daver’s prediction: 7th
Head coach: Joe Shawhan, entering his fourth season at Michigan Tech
2019-20 overall record: 21-15-3 (14-12-2-0 WCHA)
Key returning players: Junior forward Alec Broetzman (16-11-27), junior forward Trenton Bliss (12-15-27), junior forward Brian Halonen (12-10-22)
Key losses: Forward Alex Smith (7-16-23), defenseman Seamus Donohue (3-14-17), goaltender Matt Jurusik (19-10-3, .924 SV%, 2.07 GAA)
Key additions: Goaltender Matt Sinclair (Alabama Huntsville), forward Carson Bantle (Madison, USHL), defenseman Brett Thorne (Carleton Place, CCHL)
2020-21 predictions: The Huskies replaced one transfer goaltender, Jurusik, with another in Sinclair, and should not miss a beat in their own end as the senior has been strong for three seasons in Huntsville. Losing Donohue will hurt in the short term, as he had become a key piece of their blue line over the last few seasons. Up front, many eyes will be pulled to Bantle, the 6-foot-5 goal scorer who will likely draw a lot of attention from defenders. Alongside him, the trio of juniors (Broetzman, Halonen, and Bliss) are all one year older and wiser as they take over the leadership mantle. The Huskies are a dark horse to win the WCHA title, should they get hot in the second half.
Jack’s prediction: 6th
Daver’s prediction: 4th
Head coach: Mike Hastings, entering his ninth season at MSU
2019-20 overall record: 31-5-2 (23-4-1 WCHA, first)
Key returning players: Junior goaltender Dryden McKay (30-4-2, .942 SV%, 1.31 GAA), sophomore forward Lucas Sowder (6-25-31), sophomore forward Nathan Smith (9-18-27), senior forward Dallas Gerads (8-17-25)
Key losses: Forward Marc Michaelis (20-24-44), defenseman Connor Mackey (7-17-24), forward Parker Tuomie (14-23-37), forward Charlie Gerard (13-17-30), defenseman Ian Scheid (3-19-22), forward Nick Rivera (10-3-13)
Key additions: Forward Todd Burgess (RPI, ECAC), goaltender Ryan Edquist (Boston College, Hockey East), forward Brendan Furry (Tri-City/Omaha, USHL), defenseman Akito Hirose (Salmon Arm Silverbacks, BCHL), defenseman Jake Livingstone (Langley Rivermen, BCHL)
2020-21 predictions: It’s not very controversial to say that the Mavericks are still the team to beat in the WCHA. This is even true despite losing three of their four top scorers. But when you still have five 20-plus point-scorers coming back AND return arguably the top goaltender in the nation in McKay, the MacNaughton Cup is going to be yours to lose. The caveat here is for this season always that nobody knows what kind of effect COVD-19 is going to have on the roster, so it’s still possible for the Mavericks to lose some key players at inopportune times, but they have the best depth in the WCHA and should be able to fend off any challenges no matter what the pandemic throws at them.
Jack’s prediction: 1st
Daver’s prediction: 1st
Head coach: Grant Potulny, entering his fourth season at Northern Michigan
2019-20 overall record: 18-16-4 (16-11-1-1 WCHA)
Key returning players: Junior forward Griffin Loughran (23-16-39), junior forward Vincent de Mey (15-13-28), senior forward Joseph Nardi (8-19-27)
Key losses: Forward Darien Craighead (15-16-31), defenseman Philip Beaulieu (6-19-25), defenseman Ben Newhouse (3-12-15)
Key additions: Forward Brett Willits (Chilliwack, BCHL), defenseman Noah Ganske (Green Bay, USHL), forward Connor Marritt (Vernon, BCHL)
2020-21 predictions: Junior goaltender Nolan Kent grew by leaps and bounds over the course of the 2019-20 season, earning the starting role in the process. He will be a big part of the Wildcats’ success this season as they lost two key defenders in Beaulieu and Newhouse to graduation. Fortunately, he has help in front of him thanks to the continued growth of Loughran, who fell just short of the 40-point mark courtesy of a hard-fought series with the Huskies in the WCHA playoffs. Loughran provides the spark the Wildcats need up front. He will drive the Wildcats again this season and have them in the hunt for a home playoff spot.
Jack’s prediction: 4th
Daver’s prediction: 5th
NOT PLAYING IN 2020-21
Head coach: Matt Curley, entering his third season at Alaska Anchorage
2019-20 overall record: 4-25-7 (4-18-6-3 WCHA)
Key returning players: Sophomore forward Rylee St. Onge (8-9-17), sophomore forward Nick Wicks (7-9-16), sophomore forward Alex Frye (9-5-14)
Key losses: Forward Luc Brown (8-12-20), defenseman Tommy Hiekkavirta (2-13-15)
Key additions: Forward Daniel Rybarik (Salmon Arm, BCHL), forward Zach Krajnik (Kenai River, NAHL)
2020-21 predictions: The Seawolves have chosen to sit out the 2020-21 season, which was planned to be their final season competing at the NCAA Division I level, effectively ending the program before its final season could begin.