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New-look WCHA finds new playoff home, format: Final Five set for Grand Rapids, Mich., in 2014

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ST. PAUL – After months of rumor, speculation and hearsay, the new-look Western Collegiate Hockey Association finally has a new playoff home. And fans of Bemidji State should know it well.

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The league announced at a press conference Saturday that it would hold the 2014 Final Five March 21-22 at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich. The Beavers played in an NCAA regional tournament there en route to the Frozen Four in 2009.

“It’s a great situation,” WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said. “We’re very excited about the future of our league and the tournament.”

In the press conference, which was held prior to Saturday night’s league title game between Wisconsin and Colorado College at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, league officials said the tournament would rotate between Grand Rapids and St. Paul. They’ll play the finals in Michigan in the 2013-14 and 2015-16 seasons and return to Minnesota for the 2014-15 and 2016-17 tournament. The Xcel Center will continue to host the tournament when it returns to St. Paul.

The conference is changing dramatically next season. Bemidji State will remain in the WCHA along with Minnesota State, Michigan Tech and Alaska Anchorage. Joining the league will be five teams from the soon-to-be-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association: Lake Superior State, Northern Michigan, Ferris State, Bowling Green State and Alaska Fairbanks. Alabama Huntsville will join from the ranks of the independents.

McLeod noted Grand Rapids’ proximity to the five Michigan schools as the main reason for holding it at Van Andel Arena, which is also the home of the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL (a Detroit Red Wings affiliate). Grand Rapids is just 53 miles away from Big Rapids, Mich., the home of Ferris State.

The league also announced its playoff format at the press conference – and it’s one that was drastically different than the controversial plan reported following the league’s meetings last summer in Detroit.

Instead of requiring the two Alaska schools to play each year, regardless of their league finish, the WCHA has rethought that idea and announced a fairly normal playoff procedure.

The top eight teams in the league standings will make the playoffs with the top four seeds hosting the bottom four seeds in a best-of-three first-round series on campus sites. The winners advance to the Final Five, which will now have four teams in a straight semifinal format.

In addition to its new playoff location and format, the league also unveiled a new logo at the press conference.

The logo is similar to the league’s current one, but moves the skating hockey player from the right side of the “WCHA” wordmark. The skater’s color now is red and the font has been tweaked.

Instate tournament

Also Saturday, the five Minnesota Division-I hockey schools – Bemidji State, Minnesota, St. Cloud State, Minnesota State and Minnesota-Duluth – announced the official creation of a tournament featuring all five programs.

The tournament, which does not yet have a name, will be played Jan. 24-25, 2014, at the Xcel Energy Center.

The five schools had representatives at the press conference, including Bemidji State Athletic Director Rick Goeb.

“We’re excited about it. It’s certainly great news for our fans,” Goeb said. “We’ll be in three different conferences next season. So this solidifies the fact that we’ll all get a chance to play the other schools even though they’ll be in different leagues.”

Bemidji State will not be participating in the tournament next season, but is scheduled to play in it in 2015. Instead, Minnesota will travel to Bemidji for a regular season series Oct. 18-19.

Minnesota Associate Athletics Director Tom McGinnes said the Gophers are committed to playing all four Minnesota schools each year; right now the plan calls for having the Gophers play a road series against the school not included in the tournament in a given year.

The Gophers will play in the tournament every year, with the other four schools rotating out on a yearly basis.

The tournament does not currently have an official name or sponsor – or a trophy – but McGinnes said the schools would announce a contest to name the tournament this spring.

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Jack Hittinger
Jack Hittinger is a sports reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on Bemidji State but also covering area high schools. He hails from the Great State of Michigan. Read his Bemidji State blog at http://thebeaverblog.areavoices.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @Jackhitts.
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