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July 7, 2011 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Power Play

Formulation of New Western Conference Throws College Hockey For Another Loop

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

For years, we've followed all of the college hockey movement — the ECAC's shift away from its parent organization, the movement of teams in Hockey East and the ECAC, the comings and goings of programs, the CHA saga, the formation of Atlantic Hockey and its expansion, and so on. We've broken a lot of the stories.

This one snuck up on us.

Numerous sources had been saying for weeks that talk of the "Super Conference" was just that — talk — and nothing more. Some of those sources, it turns out, were among those plotting the conference itself. We were definitely thrown off the track.

It also didn't make logical sense. Why would five of the WCHA's power schools leave to start a new conference? What's the difference between that and just staying in the WCHA? I still don't know.

Yet here we are. The five WCHA teams that made the NCAA Tournament last year, including the national champion — Minnesota-Duluth, Denver, Colorado College, North Dakota and Nebraska-Omaha — along with CCHA power Miami will form this new league. The announcement is set for Wednesday in Colorado Springs.

Notre Dame is still on the fence. More on them below.

Suddenly, the WCHA goes from a storied conference with a proud 60-year history of excellence, to five remaining schools that, even if it could find new partners and hold together, would be the fifth-best conference in college hockey.

Of course, the whole thing started when its two biggest programs — Wisconsin and Minnesota — decided to leave and help form the new Big Ten. But those two schools didn't even make the NCAAs last year. The WCHA, theoretically, would still be fine, filled with many strong programs, and still, presumably, set to play Wisconsin and Minnesota on a regular basis. It was the remaining CCHA schools we were most worried about.

So why the urgency to leave? Why jettison the "bottom five" — Alaska-Anchorage, St. Cloud State, Minnesota State, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech — so brazenly, and leave those programs in a major quandry?

No idea.

"It's the first time in a long time that selfishness has entered the college hockey mindset," said one administrator.

Maybe they are fed up with the WCHA's leadership. There are certainly plenty of gripes that could fairly be made.

But is that a reason for this decision? After all, the athletic directors of the WCHA schools could vote to fire commissioner Bruce McLeod any time they wanted to.

We've been saying all along that, because of the ramifications of the Big Ten decision, it will be every man for himself out there. And we've maintained that, while unfortunate there couldn't be a grand master plan that helps everyone, that we understand why that wouldn't be feasible.

But I can't figure out what's driving the decision. And I fear that, five years down the road, there will be buyer's remorse for these programs.

These schools, remember, are powers in hockey, and nothing else (at least, not at the Division I level). Denver and Miami are the only full-fledged Division I schools of the bunch. North Dakota and Nebraska-Omaha are transitioning to that level. Minnesota-Duluth is D-II and Colorado College is D-III. These are great hockey schools, but will the institutions be stretching themselves beyond their comfort zone?

It remains to be seen.

The big winner here is Miami. As mentioned last column, Miami was between a rock and a hard place. Notre Dame and Miami were powers who no doubt, without the three Big Ten schools, wouldn't want to play in the CCHA anymore. But Miami, we speculated, may not have many options.

Miami insisted, however, that it was willing to pour the kind of money into the program that it would take to sustain excellence. That means more air travel. And with that pledge, this was certainly a great option for Miami.

Still trying to figure out the other guys' motivation.

Next?

Meanwhile, Notre Dame still holds cards. In the last column, I called it a Mexican Standoff waiting to see what Notre Dame would do. But the "Super Conference" schools decided not to wait around for Notre Dame. They did, however, invite Notre Dame to join.

Notre Dame has said it will honor its promise to the CCHA to make a decision by the conference's August meetings. Let's be real, though, there is no chance that Notre Dame remains in the CCHA. The only two options are go to Hockey East, or this new Western conference.

Notre Dame's recruiting footprint has been in the West, but as an institution, it is more closely aligned with the kind of schools that are in Hockey East. With the opening of a new 5,100-seat hockey arena next season, and grand plans to be on television almost every game, Notre Dame has a lot riding on the decision. Administrators there are doing a lot of due diligence to make sure its plans are best realized in whatever new conference it joins.

If Notre Dame goes West, presumably Western Michigan will be asked to join as an eighth team. If Notre Dame goes to Hockey East, the new conference may not want to play with seven teams, leaving Western Michigan behind.

Would that leave the door open for the new "super conference" to invite schools like St. Cloud State and Minnesota State, or would it stick with six? Hard to say without knowing the motivation to split in the first place.

Meanwhile, there are five more programs in a bind than we thought there would be.

We've been saying for months that the remaining CCHA schools — Northern Michigan, Lake Superior State, Ferris State, Bowling Green, Alaska and maybe Western Michigan — were stuck. But the WCHA left-behinders are now in the same boat.

And then?

I never bought into the idea that it would be armageddon for the remaining schools. As far back as five years ago, I had a column saying the Big Ten was inevitable, and the positives should be embraced. Those positives include the ability for these smaller schools to re-formulate into a group of "like-minded institutions" that will be able to realistically compete for NCAA bids every year, and play the Cinderella role. Ask Air Force and RIT if they would rather have been in the WCHA or Atlantic Hockey.

I still think this is the future for many of these schools, and, it could turn out OK, so long as they schools keep supporting their recruiting efforts and maintain 18 scholarships.

Somewhere amid that spectacular mess, will be the formation of another new conference, or a re-formulation of the CCHA and WCHA. This could take on any number of scenarios, all of which will play out in the coming months.

"I see it as a knee-jerk reaction," said one coach of the schools left behind to the creation of the new conference. "I hope that we take some time here, and do things right."

Will the five remaining WCHA teams pull in some CCHA teams, like Northern Michigan and/or Alaska? Or will it go the other way, with the CCHA pulling in Michigan Tech, for example?

Atlantic Hockey commissioner Bob DeGregorio insisted last month that his league would remain intact, but things have a way of changing, and there's a very real chance that schools like Niagara and Robert Morris will jump at the chance to play with 18 scholarships again in a re-constituted CCHA.

Meanwhile, is the ECAC immune to all of this? You never know. If Notre Dame goes to Hockey East, and Connecticut isn't ready to upgrade its program and join too, that leaves Hockey East with 11 teams. Will it look for No. 12 in the ECAC, such as with Quinnipiac?

They say no, now, but — as should be abundantly clear by now — things have a way of changing.
 

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