WCHA breakup looms as memorable Final Five begins
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The last few months of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s traditional look have been as tense and strong as ever. Merely four points in the standings separated first and sixth place when the regular season ended.
Perhaps the six teams still alive in the conference playoffs can find a way to top that this weekend. After this year’s WCHA tournament, the league and the landscape of the sport will never be the same.
Minnesota State, Wisconsin, Colorado College, North Dakota, Minnesota and St. Cloud State are left in the bracket, with five games to determine the Broadmoor Trophy winner before eight of the league’s current 12 teams bolt for other conferences.
The WCHA will play on, but many of the storied rivalries will be gone.
“To know that we’re not going to have that opportunity again, it is sad,” St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko said. “Those conversations are for other days, but it is a sad time. We, like everybody, wanted to make sure we were there the last year.”
Motzko’s Huskies, fittingly, won their first MacNaughton Cup, given to the regular-season champions. They shared it with Minnesota. And while the Gophers are committed to playing St. Cloud State and the other schools in their state on a regular basis once they join the Big Ten, they’ll never again be conference foes playing four or more times annually. Even St. Cloud State will lose the rivalry with Minnesota State, a 2½-hour drive away in Mankato.
So while the teams have bigger goals to chase with the NCAA tournament looming ahead, there’ll be more pride than usual at stake on the ice at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., the site of the “Final Five” event since the arena opened 12 years ago. Even if the principals participating are reluctant to acknowledge as much.
“Everybody’s focusing on trying to keep our young men and our programs in the now,” Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings said, adding: “We just want to have the opportunity to put our jerseys over our shoulders for another week.”
The Mavericks likely will, regardless of how they fare against Wisconsin in the quarterfinals on Thursday. After winning their first-round WCHA playoff series to reach the Final Five for the first time in 10 years, they’re on secure footing for an at-large spot in the NCAA tournament.
Next season, their chance to get an at-large bid will grow a little smaller.
Minnesota State was left behind in the WCHA with Bemidji State, Alaska Anchorage and Michigan Tech. They’ll welcome Northern Michigan, Lake Superior State, Ferris State, Alaska Fairbanks and Bowling Green from the dissolving Central Collegiate Hockey Association, as well as independent Alabama Huntsville. So much for the WCHA’s first initial. Only three of the 10 teams will be west of the Mississippi River, and fans aren’t likely to take many road trips to Alaska, Alabama or Ohio.
St. Cloud State, North Dakota, Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota Duluth and Nebraska Omaha have formed the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, and CCHA expats Western Michigan and Miami of Ohio will join them.
This shuffling, not directly related to but mirroring the same kind of tumult surrounding football and basketball at the NCAA’s top level, began when Penn State added a varsity program to give the Big Ten the minimum sixth team to form its own league. So off went Wisconsin and Minnesota, who’ve been in the WCHA for 40-plus and 60-plus years, respectively. Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State are coming from the CCHA.
“I think it’s just a money-making thing, which I don’t agree with,” said NHL star forward Zach Parise, who played in college for North Dakota. “I think you’re really taking away some of the best rivalries in college hockey by doing that. I just think it’s a bad idea.”
Parise was asked whether the NCHC could develop the same tradition.
“The what?” he said.
That’s new conference that North Dakota is joining, Parise was told.
“Who’s in that?” he said.
The eight teams were listed for Parise.
“No matter how you slice it, the rivalry between North Dakota and Minnesota is never going to be the same as North Dakota and St. Cloud or North Dakota and Duluth,” Parise said. “They can force it as much as they want, but it’s not going to be.”
Ex-WCHA players make up roughly 10 percent of the NHL, and Parise’s Minnesota Wild team is a prime example. Defensemen Ryan Suter and Tom Gilbert and forward Dany Heatley went to Wisconsin. Forward Matt Cullen played at St. Cloud State. Defenseman Nate Prosser went to Colorado College. Forward Jason Zucker played for Denver. That’s more than one quarter of the Wild’s active roster in a league where Canadians are the majority and Europeans are a significant part of the talent pool.
So the fans, players and coaches will pack into the place this weekend, the last time North Dakota green and white and Minnesota maroon and gold will vie for space and pride at the same conference tournament.
“It’s difficult to describe or put into words how much it means and how fun it is just to be walking up and down the streets, let alone in the building on game night when you’ve got 8 to 10,000 of our fans wearing green and white up in the stands,” North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol.