JACK HITTINGER COLUMN: Revamped WCHA might not be the best, but it's more exciting
Fear not, Bemidji State hockey fan.
You’ll likely be sitting between them at the bar this weekend, hearing them argue about the superiority of their respective schools, with one accusing the other of abandoning the WCHA as we knew it for the cash grab that is the National Collegiate Hockey Conference/Big Ten Hockey Conference (depending, of course, on which person is doing the talking).
They’ll be talking about their first-place races for their said conference and they’ll likely be yelling over that pitcher of beer, trying to assert one conference is better than the other for one reason or another.
Keep drinking your beer. They likely have forgotten you exist — like many in the national scene, the new-look WCHA doesn’t register anymore. It’s the Mid-American Conference of college hockey.
For example, Ben Goessling, who covers the Vikings for ESPN, on Friday tweeted “#BringBackTheWCHA” during a conversation about the Big Ten with another media member.
When someone pointed out to him that the WCHA still exists, he said it was “dead.”
“Minnesota’s not in it. North Dakota’s not in it. Wisconsin’s not in it. SCSU and UMD aren’t in it. It’s dead.” he said.
But here’s the thing. The WCHA isn’t dead.
I wouldn’t argue that the new version of the WCHA is as good, talent-wise, as the old league. No way. Not even close. That would be nearly impossible.
But if you’re looking for the nation’s most entertaining college hockey league, look no further.
With one weekend remaining in the regular season, virtually nothing has been decided.
Here’s the entirety of what we know about the WCHA: Alabama-Huntsville will not make the playoffs. Ferris State, Minnesota State, Alaska and Michigan Tech will make the playoffs. And either Ferris or Minnesota State will win the conference title.
The end. That’s all there is.
The other five teams in the conference are fighting for four playoff spots, and every single one of them could either host a home playoff series next weekend or could be making the final plans for their golf vacations next weekend.
Obviously, the Big Ten, NCHC and Hockey East are now where most of the college hockey world’s power-players call home. Those conference might have elite teams on the top, but they just aren’t any fun.
The Big Ten has basically been decided for a month (either Minnesota or Wisconsin).
The conference has six teams and everyone makes the tournament. Yawn.
There’s an intriguing race for first in the NCHC but everybody makes the playoffs there so who cares? The top four teams in that conference are likely going to make the NCAA tournament anyway so it doesn’t really matter.
Now that Hockey East has 11 teams everyone gets in and the top teams get a bye. Same goes for the ECAC and Atlantic Hockey.
In the WCHA, a team like Lake Superior State — once ranked as highly as No. 12 in the national poll — finds itself a loss away from missing out on the playoffs entirely.
A team like Bemidji State — who went on an eight-game winless streak earlier this season — is on the cusp of hosting a first-round playoff series.
No other league can match that this year.
Sure, the WCHA was similar last season, in that the race for the McNaughton Cup also wasn't decided until the final weekend.
The difference is last time everyone -- even two-win, 12th-place Alaska-Anchorage -- made the playoffs. There was no urgency.
And yeah, maybe it’s because, overall, the WCHA isn’t as strong as it used to be. North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Denver are gone.
The old CCHA teams likewise don’t have to deal with Michigan, Notre Dame or Miami anymore.
But if you’re a fan of one of the little guys — teams that used to take beatings from the big guys in the old league for the right to travel somewhere for a first-round series against the No. 1 seed — you’re ecstatic. And, likely, you’re in agony right now — one bad shift and your team might miss the playoffs.
So now you know what to say when you’re stuck between those friends at the bar.
But you don’t even have to say anything.
Just uncrumple the copy of Tuesday’s newspaper that you keep in your back pocket (because everybody keeps a crumpled newspaper in their back pocket… right? Or am I the weird one?). Flip to the scoreboard page, point to the standings, drop the paper between them and walk out of the bar.
It’s a WCHA fan version of the mic drop. The WCHA isn’t dead. Long live the WCHA.
Jack Hittinger is a sports reporter for the Pioneer, specializing in Bemidji State hockey and other BSU teams. Contact him at 333-9772 or firstname.lastname@example.org.