The landscape has shifted greatly in college hockey, and the UAA Seawolves are right in the center of the chaos.
The Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), a league in which the ‘Wolves have played in since 1993, is now back to six teams after the formal introduction of former WCHA member Northern Michigan. The Wildcats, who currently play in the Central Collegiate Hockey Conference, will rejoin the league they left back in 1997 come the 2013-14 season.
The addition of NMU gives hope to the league after it was dealt a huge curveball just a few weeks ago.
An announcement that five WCHA teams would leave the conference and shake the very foundations of what many consider to be the most successful league, both financially and in terms of championships, in all of college hockey.
Joining a new “super-conference” would be North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha, Denver, and Colorado College. These teams, along with Miami-Ohio from the CCHA, will all be a part of the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC). The early implications are that perhaps even more teams from either the WCHA or CCHA may be offered a spot in this new league, as it further expands.
The formation of the NCHC was perhaps a response to an earlier announcement of the new Big-10 Hockey conference, something that was foreseen and is nothing new to the Seawolves or college hockey world.
“I don’t think (the NCHC) happens if the Big-10 doesn’t come about,” said Dr. Steve Cobb, UAA’s Athletic Director. “They’re related, but the Big-10 is not the root of the problem. I think a couple of schools were hurt that the Big-10 didn’t offer them affiliate membership because over the years they insinuated they might to a few other programs (in the WCHA).”
This new Big-10 league will begin play in 2013-14 season would take WCHA members Wisconsin and Minnesota, CCHA members Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State from their respective conferences and put them with a newly formed Penn State hockey program to form a six-team conference.
This left the WCHA with only UAA, Minnesota State, Bemidji State, St. Cloud State, and Michigan Tech to carry on the conference banner.
So with seven teams overall leaving the WCHA, UAA and its remaining conference foes quickly had to set on-ice differences and hatred towards one another, in order to keep the league afloat.
A meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota beginning on July 15, brought up just about everything the remaining WCHA members would have to address immediately, including officials, non-conference scheduling and league reorganization.
“(The meetings) were a little frustrating, a little productive, a little maddening, and a lot of emotion,” Dr. Cobb said. “Overall, it was a good meeting and we’re moving in a proper direction.”
However, the biggest issue going forward would being getting the league back to six teams to protect its ability to operate and gain an automatic bid to the NCAA Postseason for its conference winner.
“I think the WCHA will remain strong and search for members that will maintain that strength,” said UAA Head Coach Dave Shyiak.
The answer came in the form of UNM, which just happened to be Shyiak’s alma mater and where he began his collegiate coaching career.
Now that the five remaining teams had answered the seven-team contraction with a bit of expansion of their own in UNM, the league may have a few more tricks up its sleeve in the coming weeks.
Several schools have been thrown around in terms of who the WCHA will look to offer membership, to get the league to eight teams, however, there are two that are awfully intriguing to UAA in particular.
“No question, UAF would be our first choice as it makes sense for us,” Dr. Cobb said. “Also, I would like the Air Force Academy to join. We’ve had such a great relationship with them over the years and it’s a first class operation.”
Other names that have come up include other CCHA members, such as Western Michigan, Ferris State, and Lake Superior State.
The WCHA is very set on getting their numbers to eight and representatives from each school have agreed to have a conference call every week until they reach that goal.
Another thing that remains to be answered is how the league will operate behind closed doors for the next two seasons. Seeing as how the new conferences don’t go into effect until 2013, the elephant in the room will be ever present when representatives from all the current 12 teams are together in the same room.
“Obviously, there’s going to be tension,” Dr. Cobb said. “There are some people who’ve had awfully long relationships damaged. You try not to take things personally but we’re all human. Hopefully what’s done is done and we can set aside emotions and do business.”
“I do think that games are going to get a bit more edgy though.”
At the other end of the spectrum, it is unclear exactly how each of the departing schools will go about their business in their remaining time. Ken Ralph, the Director of Athletics at Colorado College, thinks that when the puck is dropped, fans will continue to see the top-notch hockey they’re accustomed to.
“I think you will see the play on the ice and don’t think anyone will notice much of a difference,” said Ralph. “The WCHA will still be the best conference in college hockey for the next two years.”
Interestingly enough, Ralph may be one of the only people who can see both si
des of this realignment. Though he is the Director of Athletics for CC, he also is a UAA alumnus and even is a member of the Seawolf Athletic Hall of Fame, after winning five NCAA Division II All-American awards in swimming as a Seawolf.
“I have a very strong passion for my alma mater, I am a Seawolf,” Ralph said. “The thought of not being with UAA (in the WCHA) tugged at me personally.
Ralph also believes that despite the departure of the traditional powers in the WCHA, life will go on for those remaining behind.
“The WCHA is proven to be a remarkably resilient conference and organization,” Ralph said. “I think the WCHA is going to find a way to reinvent itself and the teams in the league are actually going to get better.”
One thing that can be guaranteed by both sides: games are going to be injected with a bit more nastiness to them.
“I think there will be new incentives and locker room talks will get even more interesting,” Ralph said.