Present, Future Rivals Headed To Right Place
by Dan Myers/CHN Staff
BEMIDJI, Minn. Much has been said and written about the direction college hockey is headed in the fall of 2013. Often times, we've focused too much on the power players in these new leagues — why the National Collegiate Hockey Association was formed, and why are the teams in that league, actually the ones in that league.
Those questions haven't been answered yet, but they will.
When 2013-14 actually comes, the WCHA will lose a pair of teams to the Big Ten, a move that was inevitable once a sixth school, Penn State, added men's hockey. The league will also lose power players — some might say power brokers — North Dakota and Denver, along with Colorado College, Nebraska-Omaha, Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State. Without a doubt, the league will have a much different look when that time comes.
Early on, most, myself included, wondered what this meant for the Bemidji States and the Minnesota States of the world. Was there enough juice left in the new WCHA to keep these programs alive, much less viable?
After much thought and debate, I believe the answer is yes. And a resounding one at that. In fact, it could be argued this was the best possible thing to happen to schools like BSU and MSU.
Fans in Mankato are clamoring for a winner. And the fans in Mankato that complain about the quality of opponent in the new WCHA — the ones disappointed with the lack of a big-name draw coming to town — will be satisfied when a winner is on the ice. It's the only thing that will make Mankato a hockey town, like it was for three days in March of 2008, when the Mavs and Gophers played in a playoff series there.
How do I know? The building was virtually empty when Colorado College came to town earlier this season, ranked No. 7 at the time. Plenty of seats were available when Wisconsin was in town earlier this month, and when UNO was there last weekend. Even when Minnesota and North Dakota come to town, the arena is half-filled with opponents' fans anyway.
Fans in Mankato want a winner. And in the new WCHA, they'll have a much better chance of having one.
Bemidji is quite a bit different. This town eats and breathes hockey. The Beavers, in 10th place, have a mostly full building for a series against 11th-place Minnesota State. The sparkling new Sanford Center, built on the shores of Lake Bemidji, is one of the WCHA's finest facilities.
But this town supported hockey when BSU played in dumpy old John Glas Fieldhouse on campus before last season. This community embraced a rivalry with Alabama-Huntsville when the two teams played in College Hockey America. The community beamed when little Bemidji State — a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament in 2009 — made it all the way to the Frozen Four in Washington D.C.
Despite a rag-tag arena, and a rag-taggier schedule, the town of Bemidji has supported the Beavers for decades. Playing the North Dakotas and Minnesotas is great for the people and the businesses in town, but they're gonna show up for Ferris State and Bowling Green, too.
But the WCHA, a conference the community tried to get BSU into for years, including spending a wad of cash to build a brand new rink, is not a place where yearly NCAA Tournament runs will be the usual, as it was for BSU in the old CHA.
Like MSU, it's a place where you might make a run every once in a while. But with national championship caliber programs 110 miles to the west, 150 miles east and 230 miles to the south, is it really a place for sustained long-term success?
For different reasons, these old Division II rivals need the new WCHA much more than the present one. For one, a new WCHA will allow them a chance to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade. For the other, it will allow them a chance to return to the tournament they've been to so many times.
For both, it will be a big step in the right direction.