Minn. in middle of conference shift

Coaches debate the viability of a WHCA going forward without several juggernauts.

Andrew Baker

While Minnesota is not exactly a hotbed of seismic activity, college hockey fans would nonetheless agree that a proverbial fault line now runs through the state.

 With five Minnesota teams in the soon-to-change WCHA, the shake-up in college hockeyâÄôs conference alignment could dilute rivalries and alter traditions in the State of Hockey.

Though it includes teams from seven states, much of the WCHAâÄôs tradition and prestige has historically been defined by the Gophers and their intra-state and cross-border rivalries.

Starting with the 2013-14 season, the storied conference will lose seven teams to two newly-created conferences, the Big Ten hockey league and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Minnesota and Wisconsin will depart for the former, while Minnesota-Duluth, North Dakota, Nebraska-Omaha, Denver and Colorado College will form the NCHC along with Miami-Ohio of the CCHA.

âÄúI donâÄôt know if IâÄôm comfortable to say that itâÄôs a good thing for college hockey right now,âÄù said Gophers associate head coach Mike Guentzel of the conference shake-ups. âÄúI think it could be if done right, but boy, I really liked the tradition of the WCHA for 60 years.âÄù

When Penn State upgraded its hockey program from club to Division I status last fall, it heralded the coming of a Big Ten hockey conference. Apparently in anticipation of these developments, the WCHA added Bemidji State and Nebraska-Omaha for the 2010-11 season.

Despite losing two stalwarts, it appeared the WCHA would otherwise remain intact. Earlier this month though, the announcement of the NCHC looked like a possibly fatal blow to the WCHA.

A conference needs six members to receive an automatic bid for the NCAA tournament, and with seven teams leaving the WCHA would only have had five in 2013-14. However, based on statements released by member schools and the conferenceâÄôs approval last week for the membership of Northern Michigan University in 2013-14, it appears the WCHA will not be dissolving.

âÄúThe WCHA is a very strong brand and it will continue to be a strong brand,âÄù said Alaska-Anchorage head coach Dave Shyiak.

âÄúI know some people probably donâÄôt really like the change, but I think in the bigger picture and in the scope of things, I think college hockey is going to become stronger in years to come because of the realignment and the different leagues being formed right now.âÄù The question is: What will those leagues look like?

âÄúThatâÄôs what everybodyâÄôs working on right now,âÄù said St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko. âÄú[Six] is not a good number for a league, so youâÄôre going to see these leagues grow. I think the best thing that people can do is hunker down and make sure your program is in order.âÄù

As of now the WCHA, Big Ten and CCHA will each have six teams in 2013-14, leading to various theories on which teams will leave which conferences. The prevailing wisdom, though, is that the changes are far from over.

CCHA members Western Michigan and Notre Dame are both reportedly in the market for new conferences, which has in turn led to speculation that the CCHA could dissolve or be absorbed by the WCHA.

Minnesota State-Moorhead, meanwhile, announced earlier this month that it has raised about 40 percent of its stated goal of $37 million to upgrade its hockey program to Division I.

âÄúI have probably half a dozen emails and 50 phone calls over the last two weeks with different scenarios,âÄù Motzko said. âÄúIâÄôm having a hard time keeping them all straight right now. WhateverâÄôs going to be best for college hockey and our programs, weâÄôre going to look at.âÄù

Depending on their allegiances, WCHA fans routinely trek between Minneapolis and cities like St. Cloud, Duluth, Madison, Wis., and Grand Forks, N.D., to cheer on their teams in opponentsâÄô facilities.

âÄúI really like the fact that right now MinnesotaâÄôs got five really good Division I hockey programs,âÄù Guentzel said. âÄúFor me, I certainly like being on the bench at Mariucci Arena when we have those other four [Minnesota] teams in our building âĦ I think itâÄôs really exposed and grown most programs. I worry whatâÄôs going to happen if they donâÄôt have the exposure.âÄù

Motzko confirmed published reports that he, Gophers head coach Don Lucia and the coaches of Bemidji State and Minnesota State-Mankato are in preliminary discussions about an annual tournament between the four in-state rivals.

Since its founding in 1951, the WCHA has fielded 36 NCAA Frozen Four champions and 27 runners-up.

âÄúThe WCHA arguably was the best college hockey conference in the country,âÄù Motzko said. âÄúIt was special, and we all benefitted from it. âĦ When we [SCSU] were admitted entrance into the WCHA 20-plus years ago, the benefit that our school received âĦ You canâÄôt put a number to it. ItâÄôs immeasurable.âÄù

âÄúThere is a sadness that [the WCHA] is breaking up,âÄù Motzko added, âÄúbut itâÄôs gone. In college hockey, weâÄôve got a great thing and weâÄôre in the right region. WeâÄôll figure this out.âÄù