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Conference shuffle has new league, familiar foes for Bemidji State

Two years ago, Bemidji State and six other schools announced that it was leaving the WCHA in favor of the “exploration” of a new NCAA Division I men’s hockey conference, with sights set on the 2021-22 season. And here we are.

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Bemidji State's Ross Armour (17) rounds the Michigan Tech net during a March 2021 WCHA playoff game at the Sanford Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

On a quiet Friday afternoon before the Fourth of July weekend in 2019, seven men’s hockey schools in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association shot off some fireworks.

Among them, Bemidji State announced that it was leaving the WCHA in favor of the “exploration” of a new NCAA Division I men’s hockey conference, with sights set on the 2021-22 season.

And here we are.

More than two years later, the Beavers are ready to compete in the revived Central Collegiate Hockey Association. The seven programs have also welcomed in St. Thomas, new to the Division I fold this season, as the league’s eighth member.

RELATED: Read all the stories in the Pioneer's BSU Hockey special section

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Joining BSU and St. Thomas in the CCHA are WCHA departees Bowling Green, Ferris State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State, Northern Michigan and reigning WCHA Tournament champion Lake Superior State.

As WCHA regular season champions, Minnesota State won the historic MacNaughton Cup in 2020-21. Michigan Tech, the trustee of the trophy, carries the cup into the CCHA so that it can be awarded to the new league’s regular-season champion beginning with this winter.

Bemidji State won the MacNaughton Cup as WCHA champs once, claiming the trophy in 2017.

The new conference shuffle is the second in as many decades for BSU. The Beavers spent 11 seasons in the WCHA, which they shifted to in 2009-10 following an 11-year stint in the College Hockey America conference as Division I debutants.

The WCHA officially disbanded on July 1, 2021, after 70 years of play. The league dissolved after a unanimous vote taken by the league’s two remaining members, Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Fairbanks, both of whom were left out of the transition to the CCHA along with Alabama Huntsville.

Alaska Fairbanks will play as an independent program in 2021-22, while Alaska Anchorage announced in August that it surpassed its fundraising goal of $3 million and will reinstate the men’s hockey program in 2022-23. Alabama Huntsville discontinued men’s hockey in May.

The WCHA women’s league, to which Bemidji State has belonged since 1999, will continue to sponsor NCAA Division I women’s hockey.

The BSU men have their first CCHA series scheduled for Oct. 22-23 at Northern Michigan in Marquette, Mich. The team’s first CCHA home games at the Sanford Center will come against Bowling Green on Oct. 29-30.

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The CCHA first existed from 1971-2013 and was dormant until the former WCHA schools announced in February 2020 that they were reviving the league. Don Lucia, one of college hockey’s most successful coaches, serves as the league’s commissioner.

Micah Friez is the former sports editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. A native of East Grand Forks, Minn., he worked at the Pioneer from 2015-23 and is a 2018 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in Creative and Professional Writing.
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