Beginning of the End
WCHA's Final Regular Season As We Know It Starts Tonight
by Kelly Erickson/CHN Reporter
It has grown into one of the most legendary and hard-hitting conferences in the nation.
When it comes the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, each year is a tough one. No one can ever expect an easy ride even against the lowliest of teams.
But this year marks its last.
“This is the year that we’re going to celebrate along with our other 11 schools in the conference,” Denver head coach George Gwozdecky said. “It’s been a great home. There’s some bittersweet feelings, without a doubt.”
Gwozdecky is one of a majority of coaches throughout the WCHA who was both a player and is currently a coach within the league. Mike Eaves of Wisconsin, North Dakota’s Dave Hakstol, Alaska Anchorage’s Dave Shyiak, Scott Sandelin of Minnesota-Duluth, Scott Owens of Colorado College, Minnesota’s Don Lucia, Mankato’s Mike Hastings, Michigan Tech's Mel Pearson, and Dean Blais of Nebraska-Omaha each have roots playing in the legendary league prior to coaching in it.
The former Wisconsin winger summed up just how uniquely fortunate the experience was and his high expectations for one of the best seasons the league has had yet.
“I’ve been on both sides as a player and a coach,” Gwozdecky said. “I’ve got great memories over the years, participating as a student athlete and a coach in the WCHA and am really looking forward to the season beginning. It’s going to be a great year. The league is going to be as competitive as it has been in quite a while. Certainly Minnesota right now, having watched them play two games against Michigan State last weekend — without a doubt they’re the odds on favorite to win the league title, but it’s going to be a heck of a race.”
For the majority of the conference, the 2012-13 season will be its last race for the MacNaughton Cup. As CC, Denver, Duluth, UNO, North Dakota, and SCSU form the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, and Minnesota and Wisconsin leave for the highly-anticipated Big Ten Hockey Conference, only four current teams will remain in a new-look WCHA — Alaska Anchorage, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech and Mankato.
Of the original seven founding members, in the 2013-14 season, Michigan Tech will be the only one that remains. While the change is bittersweet, the WCHA is used to change. After expanding to 10 teams in 1971-72, four teams left after 1980-81 to join the CCHA — three founding members in Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech and the most recent addition Notre Dame.
For Hakstol, having played for and now coaching for one of the league’s founding members in 1951 (wasn’t dubbed the WCHA until 1953-54), the history of the conference isn’t lost on him. But it’s longevity has created a distinctive atmosphere in college hockey.
“I just go back the history and tradition of the league and the highly competitive nature of the league,” Hakstol said. “I guess it comes back to all the relationships and the rivalries around the league. Those are an awful lot of fun to be a part of both during the regular season as well as during the post season. We’re going to take it one weekend at a time.”
While Hakstol and undoubtedly many other coaches throughout the WCHA are currently keeping their gaze fixed on the upcoming weekend, that final chance at the MacNaughton Cup, the trophy that truly signifies the most consistent and toughest team in the WCHA for a given year is an alluring one.
“It’s very, very difficult to win,” Hakstol said. “If you are able to be one of the teams competing for it in the last two or three weeks of the season, it really speaks to the fact that you had a tremendous year. Obviously it’s a goal of ours to be one of the teams that hopefully a chance to compete for the MacNaughton Cup as we go down the stretch run, but there’s an awful lot of work to do before we can even start talking about that.”
Hakstol is excited about the potential his team packs this year, but then again so are a lot of teams around the WCHA. Wisconsin, for example, feels like this year could once again be its year.
Eaves and his largely more mature Badger squad are hoping to play hockey in April, but first he has his sights set on the coveted trophy.
“It’s our last chance to get a crack at the MacNaughton Cup,” Eaves said, but with playoff thoughts on his mind. “There are these intermediate goals that we try to set on the inside as a team, but we want to be playing in April, that’s the ultimate goal.”
Regardless of what overall goals teams have and their concerns about this weekend or the next, this WCHA season — which opens play this weekend with Minnesota at Michigan Tech — is a notable time not only in the conferences history but also for the players who have been a part of it.
“It’s definitely a special time,” North Dakota senior forward Corban Knight said. “The WCHA is a pretty historic league. I think everybody that’s played in it feels pretty privileged to have the chance to play in it. I think we all feel pretty lucky to be a part of it in its last year. I think it adds a little incentive for the rest of the season because you want to go out on top, especially with it being the last year. It’s going to add a lot of competition to this year and it should make for a really good year.”