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WCHA PREVIEW: Alaska an up-and-comer in new-look league

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WCHA PREVIEW: Alaska an up-and-comer in new-look league
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The Western Collegiate Hockey Association is changing dramatically next season, losing six 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 re-acquainted with the old ones) before the season begins in October.

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Our series continues this week with the new team from the Last Frontier: The Alaska Nanooks.

BEMIDJI -- Other conferences may have more top-ten teams or more national championships to their names, but members of the newly-reconfigured WCHA can be sure of one thing: None of those conferences will be traveling as much, or as far, as the WCHA.

Bemidji State head coach Tom Serratore knows the road trips won't be kind to his Beavers -- or any other team, for that matter.

"That's the biggest change this year, is travel," he said. "We're going to be spending more time on the bus and more time in the air. It's really a grind of a travel schedule."

For a league that includes teams in Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio the travel would be difficult enough -- that's a lot of long trips on a bus.

But add a school from Alabama and two from Alaska and you've got yourself any athletic department's worst logistical nightmare.

"The travel certainly won't be easy this year, that's for sure," Serratore said.

Going to Alaska has always been a haul for college hockey teams -- the Beavers had to do it since they joined the WCHA in 2010 to take on Alaska Anchorage.

This season, the University of Alaska at Fairbanks joins the league as one of the refugees from the Central Collegiate Hockey Association

When college hockey's realignment process began the major concern for the schools in the WCHA was how their budgets would make two trips to Alaska work.

The schools came up with plans to keep costs down, including rotating the schedule to make sure teams would not be making two trips to Alaska every year. The league also made sure schools traveling to Alaska wouldn't be on the road the next weekend.

In BSU's case, making two trips to the Last Frontier won't be a concern this season -- the Beavers make just one trip to Alaska, Feb. 24-25 in Fairbanks.

It's their first-ever series against Alaska at the Division I level, and Serratore thinks the Nanooks could be one of the top teams in the league.

"They've done an outstanding job over the last 3-4 years," he said. "They're going to be in the middle to upper tier in our league right away."

Under head coach Dallas Ferguson, the Nanooks were consistent winners in the CCHA, going 80-81-28 in Ferguson's five years at the helm.

In 2009-10, the team finished 18-12-9, reached as high as No. 9 in the national polls and made its first-ever NCAA tournament at the Division I level, losing to No. 2 Boston College in the first round.

"It's a program that's become accustomed to winning in the last 3-4 years," Serratore said. "We don't know a whole lot about them but we expect them to be very good again next year."

The Beavers have never faced the Nanooks at the Division I level but the teams played three times at the Division II level, including in the 1984 national semifinals.

This season, the Beavers can expect to face a competitive team that returns much from a 17-16-3 squad that was on the NCAA tournament bubble for most of the season.

Goaltender John Keeny started in 27 of the team's 37 games as a freshman and went 13-11-3 with a 2.33 goals against average and .907 save percentage.

Although the Nanooks lost the top scorer -- all-CCHA right wing Andy Taranto -- to graduation, they return their next three point-scorers -- senior Cody Kunyk, senior Colton Beck and junior Tyler Morley.

They also return all but one member of their defensive core.

Last season, the Nanooks started slowly but, thanks to a midseason surge that saw them win six straight against the likes of Notre Dame, Michigan and Northern Michigan, they reached No. 20 in the national poll.

For most of the rest of the season they were considered a "team under consideration" for purposes of the NCAA tournament pairwise rankings. But they couldn't sustain their midseason pace.

After losing to Michigan State in the first round of the CCHA playoffs, Alaska was officially knocked out of tournament play.

Serratore thinks that because the WCHA is so even this year, the Nanooks will have a better shot at competing. This season, with a more seasoned team, they'll be one of the teams to watch.

"That's the biggest thing in this conference now. Everything is going to be cyclical," he said. "We have a ton of good teams and programs and I think everyone will have a good shot of being on top."

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Jack Hittinger
Jack Hittinger is the sports editor of the Bemidji Pioneer. He is also the Bemidji State beat writer. 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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