The University of Alaska-Anchorage's men's hockey team is likely to get two new conference rivals in a year or two, and whether one of them is the Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks from up north will depend largely on a straw vote league members will take next week, according to the Anchorage Daily News.
The 10-team Western Collegiate Hockey Association has all but decided to expand to 12 teams, either for the 2010-11 season or the 2011-12 season, commissioner Bruce McLeod told a reporter for the Alaska newspaper.
UAA athletic director Steve Cobb, one of four members of the WCHA's structure committee, thinks league members next week will vote informally on a proposal to admit both Bemidji State and Nebraska-Omaha.
If that vote fails to show widespread support for both teams, or if Omaha decides it doesn't want to join the league, Alaska-Fairbanks is expected to become a bigger part of the equation.
"Depending on how things go with Omaha, we'll consider Fairbanks," McLeod said.
The team everyone expects to gain admission is Bemidji State, the only school so far to formally apply for membership. Bemidji was an NCAA Frozen Four team this year, but its conference -- College Hockey America -- is disbanding after next season.
But the WCHA wants an even number of teams, McLeod said. And so it has been talking with Nebraska-Omaha, a member of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association that is a geographical fit for the WCHA.
The league has had several conversations with Omaha, McLeod said. The Mavericks recently hired head coach Dean Blais, a long-time WCHA coach who guided North Dakota to national championships in 1997 and 2000.
If Omaha decides it doesn't want to leave the CCHA, or if WCHA members decide Omaha isn't the best choice for its 12th team, Fairbanks will become a bigger part of the expansion conversation.
"Bruce McLeod has asked us to sit back and wait to see what happens with Nebraska-Omaha," UAF athletic director Forrest Karr told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner last week.
Two other schools that McLeod wouldn't name are also potential applicants for membership. But Cobb predicts the new members will come from two of three schools -- Bemidji, Omaha or Fairbanks.
Driving the expansion is Bemidji State, which would have to play as an independent if it does not find a new league -- never an easy thing in the relatively small world of NCAA Division I hockey, where there are 58 teams. Independents historically have a difficult time putting together a quality schedule and winning bids to the NCAA tournament.
"Bemidji can't survive as an independent," Cobb said. "If you don't have a league, you don't have a program."
Geographically, Bemidji is a natural fit for the WCHA, which already includes four Minnesota schools and the University of North Dakota.
But there's more than proximity behind the league's interest in the Beavers.
"If the league had their druthers, we might stay at 10," McLeod said. "We're making money on the tournament, there's record attendances every year, and things are good.
"But when you throw in the obligations of college hockey in the big picture and the demise of College Hockey America, we've got to try to do something. We can't let (Bemidji) fold the tent."
But the WCHA isn't interested in becoming an 11-team league, McLeod. Twelve teams would lead to easier and more balanced scheduling. So if Bemidji is allowed in, someone else needs to join too.
Cobb said UAA would welcome the Nanooks as a league rival.
"Our gates are better when we're playing the Nanooks," he said. "It would be an overwhelming positive for us. We'd get the Governor's Cup back to four games and it would be better for the schedule with two of us here."
Being in the same league would save both teams a little money, because each would replace a road trip to the Lower 48 with a road trip inside Alaska.
Others in the WCHA might have to make two trips to Alaska instead of one, but there's a tradeoff that makes that prospect appealing.
In order to make it more feasible for schools in Alaska and Hawaii to draw opponents, the NCAA long ago created a rule allowing visiting teams to play two "exempted" games against teams in those states. If, for example, the NCAA sets a limit of 20 games a season in a sport, a team could play two at UAF and two at UAA without the games counting against their limit of 20.
To join the WCHA, a team must win votes from eight of the 10 current members.
McLeod said his goal is decide on two new members by August, which could make it possible for expansion to happen in 2010.