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MEET THE NEW WCHA: Northern Michigan makes return to WCHA after 16 year absence

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The Western Collegiate Hockey Association is changing dramatically next season, losing eight teams and adding six more.

With that in mind, The Pioneer will be giving readers an in-depth look at the WCHA this summer so fans can familiarize themselves with the new members (and become reacquainted with the old ones) before the season begins in October.

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Our series returns to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula again this week with the Northern Michigan Wildcats.

BEMIDJI — They’re baaack!

After a 16 year absence, the Northern Michigan Wildcats have returned to the WCHA.

However, the league they’re joining looks drastically different than the one they left in 1997.

The only teams remaining from NMU’s first appearance in the WCHA are Upper Peninsula rivals Michigan Tech and Alaska Anchorage.

NMU started its hockey program in 1976, joined the Central Collegiate Hockey Association in 1977 and joined the WCHA in 1984, where they remained until 1997, when they rejoined the CCHA.

The Wildcats’ first foray in the WCHA was a successful one.

NMU won three Final Five titles (1988-89, 90-91, 91-92) and one regular season championship — the 1990-91.

Perhaps not coincidentally, that’s also the season of Northern Michigan’s lone national title.

The Wildcats went 38-5-1 overall and 25-3-4 that year, winning the MacNaughton Cup by a five-point margin over Minnesota.

NMU capped their dominant season with a thrilling 8-7, triple-overtime victory over Boston University in the national title game. Darryl Plandowski scored the game winner just 1:25 into the third extra frame to give the Wildcats their only title.

The Wildcats also made the Frozen Four in 1980 and 1981, but haven’t been back since.

Bemidji State head coach Tom Serratore said it’s just another storied program the new-look WCHA is adding from the ranks of the now-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association.

“They’re another storied program with some great history,” Serratore said. “They have a rich tradition and have had a lot of success, especially when they were in this league before.”

Of the five new teams joining the league from the CCHA, three (NMU, Lake Superior State and Bowling Green) have won national titles. A fourth (Ferris State) has made a Frozen Four.

It’s also the first time since a brief period in the early 1980s all three Upper Peninsula schools — NMU, Tech and Lake Superior State — will be in the same hockey conference. Marquette, Mich. — home of NMU — is about 100 miles from Houghton and a little more than 160 miles from Sault Ste. Marie.

“All of these teams coming in not only have programs rich in tradition and history,” Serratore said. “But they’ve also been very successful.”

Although they do have a rich tradition, it’s been a up-and-down for the Wildcats of late.

NMU hasn’t been bad — the Wildcats have won at least 15 games every season since 1996-97, their last in the WCHA.

But they also haven’t been dominant.

They never won a CCHA title during their second stint in the league, although they did finish second twice. And they have made just two tournament appearances since 1997, most recently in 2010.

In 2012-13, NMU went 15-19-4 overall and 9-15-4-1 in the conference, finishing 10th overall thanks mostly to poor special teams play. They gave up 36 power play goals and 13 shorthanded tallies — both among the worst in the nation.

They ended their season with a sweep at the hands of Michigan in the in the first round of the conference tournament.

This season NMU fans in Marquette, Mich., will hope the Wildcats can improve defensively, especially after losing No. 1 goaltender Jared Coreau. Coreau was solid in net for the Wildcats, but was signed by the Detroit Red Wings and won’t return for his senior season.

NMU also lost leading scorer Matt Thurber (6 goals, 26 assists) and top defenseman Scott Macauley.

Forwards Reed Seckel (13 goals, 12 assists), Erik Higby (9 goals, 12 assists) and Stephan Vigier (7 goals, 14 assists) return for NMU, as does defenseman C.J. Ludwig, but finding a goaltender to replace Coreau is a question. Michael Doan played in only five games as a freshman last season.

Bemidji State and Northern have met four times (all in the last three years), with the Beavers holding a 2-1-1 edge in the all-time series.

The Beavers don’t make any trips to Marquette this year but the Wildcats will visit the Sanford Center Jan. 3 and 4, their only meeting of the season.

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