Done Deal: WCHA Admits Nebraska-Omaha, Bemidji State
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
The deal came to fruition over the last 48 hours, through lengthy negotiations with Nebraska-Omaha, essentially coming down to monetary considerations such as entrance fees and playoff revenue.
The WCHA had indicated in April its desire to bring Bemidji State into the league, pending the ability to find a 12th team. The league immediately targeted Nebraska-Omaha, a program it passed up the chance to add in 1999 when UNO began Division I play. UNO first had to find itself a new head coach, and once it did, its attention turned to the question of whether to switch leagues.
“This is a happy and proud day for me,” WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said. “I could not be more proud of the way our WCHA members have handled this very complex circumstance and have been able to look beyond their own backyard and do what is best for college hockey and the WCHA."
Negotiations were intense over the last two months, both with UNO and internally. After talks between McLeod and UNO athletic director Trev Alberts hit a snag this week, St. Cloud State athletic director Morris Kurtz stepped in to broker some new ideas with long-time UNO administrator Don Leahy, which helped moved negotiations back in the right direction.
"There were certainly some derailers along the way, no question," McLeod said. "I think a lot of it is perfectly normal. A lot of up and down. Morris contacted Don Leahy at Omaha and between the two, cooler heads prevailed, and got us back on track."
According to McLeod, the final vote, then, was 9-0 with one abstention. McLeod declined to name the school that decided to abstain, but he said, according to that school, it wasn't about UNO or Bemidji, but rather concerns about the process.
"I don't want to say it was easy and comfortable, it was not," McLeod said. "Trev is not an easy guy to deal with. I've got some scars to prove it."
Said Alberts, "I wouldn't say Bruce is easy himself. ... I've been an AD six weeks. I don't exactly have a big bank of experience in handling these things. But we feel good about it."
While McLeod had the authority to negotiation terms of entrance for UNO, McLeod deflected questions on whether the terms were different for UNO and Bemidji.
The WCHA's gain is the CCHA's loss, however, and the latter league is now left with 11 teams. That hole could be filled with Alabama-Huntsville, which, like BSU, is a program without a home following next season.
The impetus for all of the shuffling came as College Hockey America, the current league of Bemidji and Huntsville, faced dissolution following this season. Without a conference, both programs faced the potential of losing viability completely.
Bemidji State's run to the Frozen Four this past season helped give credibility to its attempts to gain acceptance into the WCHA. But because of the difficulties of having an 11-team league, the WCHA didn't want to make that move without finding another team to come with it.
Consequently, there is no bigger winner in this equation than Bemidji State.
"It's kind of like a 200-pound monkey off our back," BSU coach Tom Serratore said. "It's a special day and I'm very honored.
“Beaver Hockey reaches far beyond this campus so that makes today’s announcement a dream come true for our alumni, many in the community and many in the region. This is a proud day for all involved with Bemidji State.”
Meanwhile, many scoffed at the hiring of Alberts, a former University of Nebraska football star, to the position of Nebraska-Omaha athletic director, with no experience as a college administrator. But since the hire, all Alberts has done is hire two-time national champion coach Dean Blais — through his own persistence in persuading Blais — and orchestrated this move to the WCHA by negotiating conditions favorable to UNO.
"When we were approached about admission, we took a long look at all aspects of a move to the WCHA," Alberts said. "In the end, we felt there were many long-term benefits to our program. ... We did not come to this decision lightly. We have had a fruitful ten-year affiliation with the (CCHA). It is a very well-run conference, and its member institutions have been outstanding partners. We know the CCHA will continue to thrive after we depart.”
At one point, Alberts indicated the process may take a little longer, but things came together quickly this week.
"There are sensitive issues with regards to this," Alberts said. "It's not fair to the member institutions of CCHA to have it drag on. We're in a unique situation. We had a home, a relationship that was pretty strong and good. But going forward, our best position long term was to be in the WCHA."
Blais expressed his pleasure with the move.
"I wasn't sure where we'd end up, but my deep down love is for the WCHA," Blais said, "and I'm happy to be back."
Now the CCHA will have its work to do.
In a statement, CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos said, "We are disappointed to hear of UNO’s decision to leave the CCHA as they have been a very good member of our league, and we wish them well. We have an excellent league, with a very strong membership, and we will continue to focus all of our attention on being a great conference and a leader in helping to shape the future of college hockey."
There was a time when Alabama-Huntsville's acceptance into the CCHA seemed like a longshot, particularly given its distance from most CCHA schools. However, with UNO's departure, it opens the door — because Alabama is a similar distance from CCHA schools as Omaha is. UAH has officially applied for entrance, and two weeks ago, CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos made an official site visit to the school's campus.
“At this time, it serves no purpose to speculate on how this latest decision will impact the future makeup of CCHA membership," Anastos said. "There is a process being followed with respect to admittance of any new member and we are committed to following that process through to completion.”
This marks the first expansion of the WCHA since Minnesota State-Mankato was admitted as a 10th member for the 1999-2000.
In moving to 12 teams, McLeod said the league is looking at a variety of regular-season scheduling plans, but said there would not be a split into two divisions. As for the postseason, McLeod said nothing is certain, but the league is leaning towards having all 12 teams make the playoffs, with six teams hosting first-round series, and six teams heading to the championship weekend in St. Paul. That is the model the CCHA once used, until switching to the ECAC's model, which is byes for the top four, two best-of-three weekends, followed by a final four.