Stemming from a…

by Michael Rand

Stemming from a reputation for physical, grind-it-out hockey and a knack for producing national champions, the WCHA, throughout its history, has been the cream of the college hockey conference crop.
Since the Midwest Collegiate Hockey League began play in 1951 — an alliance that would eventually become the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in 1959 — teams in the league have won more than half of the Division I NCAA hockey championships.
The face of college hockey’s most storied conference is changing. It’s not changing as rapidly as Michael Jackson. But, unlike Dick Clark, the league will not look the same five years from now as it did a year ago.
Northern Michigan, whose 1991 squad was the last WCHA team to win a national title, announced this summer that it is rejoining the CCHA after this season in an attempt to boost sagging enrollment.
That will leave the WCHA with nine teams next season. The league also played with nine teams from the time St. Cloud State joined in 1990 until Alaska Anchorage boosted the league’s membership to 10 in 1993.
The league is hardly struggling. Teams like Minnesota and Colorado College have been among the nation’s elite the past few seasons and other schools like North Dakota, Wisconsin and Denver are always on the cusp.
But with Northern Michigan on the way out, and two new teams — Mankato State and Nebraska-Omaha, both nicknamed the Mavericks — likely on the way in by the end of the century, the WCHA will certainly have a new look.
The Wildcats’ return to the CCHA — where they played from 1977-1984 — means they will become the fifth member of the league from Michigan, creating some obvious rivalries.
“Hopefully they will benefit and be able to establish a presence in (Michigan’s) lower peninsula,” said assistant CCHA commissioner Jeff Weiss.
On the other hand, Northern Michigan is leaving behind some rivals in the WCHA. Minnesota coach Doug Woog, who was surprised by the move, said he will miss playing against the Wildcats.
“I’m disappointed. I have some great memories of games we played in their building,” Woog said. “I hate to see a bona fide program move.”
Considering Mankato State is only beginning Division I play this season and Nebraska-Omaha won’t begin until next year, the WCHA will hardly gain established programs when the teams are admitted into the league.
By the 1999-2000 season, when Mankato State and Nebraska-Omaha are tentatively expected to join the WCHA, there will most likely be 11 teams, a changing set of rivalries and the possibility of a two-division system not too far down the road.
WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod is handling the impending changes in stride. He said there is no need to rush either Mankato State or Nebraska-Omaha into the league to compensate for the loss of Northern Michigan. He added that Michigan Tech, which was also rumored to be contemplating a move to the CCHA, has no intentions of switching leagues.
WCHA teams will play four fewer conference games next season, which was already planned before the Wildcats left the league. The main reason for the reduction in league games from 32 to 28 is to allow independents Mankato State and Nebraska Omaha an opportunity to play WCHA opponents.
Further down the road, however, there could be more dramatic changes. Even if the WCHA bumped its league schedule back up to 32 games when Mankato State and Nebraska-Omaha were admitted, the schedule would be more unbalanced than it already is.
This season, with only 10 teams in the league and 32 league games, the Gophers only play one series against WCHA foes Denver and Alaska-Anchorage. In an 11-team league, schools would have two-game season series’ against four different teams.
That could create problems if schools like Minnesota and Wisconsin only had one series with each other in a year, McLeod said.
“Anytime you reduce traditional opponents, there is a fear that the league is getting watered down,” McLeod said.
To keep the older WCHA members happy, the league may eventually split into two divisions, with either five or six teams playing in each sub-conference.
But no one, McLeod included, knows exactly what the league will look like a few years into the next millennium.
“You get to a certain point when you have to look at divisions,” McLeod said. “We have several different models in place.”