Friday, August 26, 2011

WCHA Grows, CCHA Dies

The imminent end of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association is nothing to celebrate. Good people -- from commissioner Fred Pletsch all the way down through the league's media relations staff to its officials -- will be out of work with the league ceasing to exist after the 2011-12 season.

However, the events of Thursday, which saw the Western Collegiate Hockey Association formally invite the five teams left in the CCHA for the 2013 season, are events that should be saluted by the college hockey world as a positive step.

The WCHA's move dissolves a league that has developed its own tradition and played some great hockey, but it might go a long way toward saving a couple programs who were facing uncertain futures.

The programs involved are Alaska, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, and Western Michigan. Obviously, Western Michigan has been talked about as a candidate to join Notre Dame in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, but until the Irish make up their mind what league to join, WMU can't do anything.

Lake Superior State and Alaska were quick to accept the invite. They had been pushing to join the league, and so this was probably not a surprise. Assuming WMU and Notre Dame join the NCHC, and Bowling Green accepts the WCHA invite, you're looking at a ten-team league that seems to resemble something I recommended as the NCHC news was breaking.

Could the ten combine into one league? I don't see why not. Put the Alaska teams (Anchorage and Fairbanks), Bemidji State, Minnesota State, and St. Cloud State in one division, then stick the upper Michigan teams (Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, and Northern Michigan) in a division with Bowling Green and Ferris State. Each team plays four games against divisional foes (two home, two away), and one series (home or away) against each team in the other division. 26 league games total. That's doable. Financially, though, this could be a nightmare. You'd have to have the league tournament on a campus site, or it won't draw. And if it's on a campus site, it won't draw the same kind of television interest it would if it were at a pre-determined site.

Looking at the situation, I still think this is the solution that makes the most sense. Yes, the Minnesota teams would have to play two road series per season against Alaska teams. However, the league could probably figure out a way to do the scheduling so teams can just stay up there and play both series in back-to-back weekends, and at least one of them per year could do that while on break from school if you plan it right.

It limits the out-of-division travel, which limits flights for the Michigan schools and Bowling Green. Surely, there will be some assistance for the Minnesota teams that have to subsidize two flights to Alaska every season, whether that comes from UAA and UA(F) or from the league in general. No matter what, though, it seems the WCHA is at least setting up the possibility of a two-division league.

Something else is accomplished here ... you have a lot of these schools in situations where they've struggled on the ice lately. Ferris State had a pretty good team this past season, and they've had three winning seasons the last four years. But the Bulldogs haven't made the NCAAs since 2003, and they drew just 1,700 a game last season. Lake Superior State hasn't been very good in a while, and their attendance has sagged as a result. Bowling Green was looking at the end of their program a couple years ago. Michigan Tech has -- well, you know they haven't been good. That's well-documented around here.

The point? You've put them in a position where they can much more realistically compete for a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Take out St. Cloud State, which has been very successful over the years, and you have nine schools that largely lack success in recent years. Alaska-Anchorage hasn't been in the NCAA Tournament since joining the WCHA, and its 16-18-3 record last season is the best the school has had since then. Alaska has one NCAA appearance (2010), and just seven winning seasons since Don Lucia left in 1993. Bemidji State has four NCAA trips and a Frozen Four appearance since going Division I, but only one of those four NCAA trips came without winning the CHA tournament, and that league was never good.

Ferris' 2003 NCAA appearance still stands as the only in school history. Bowling Green hasn't made it since 1990, when some guy named Jerry York was the coach. York left in 1994, and the Falcons have posted three winning seasons and nine 20-loss seasons, including six in a row. Lake Superior State hasn't "gone dancing" since 1996.

Michigan Tech's last NCAA appearance was in 1981, when new coach Mel Pearson was a senior. MTU has posted one winning season since 1993. Minnesota State has four winning seasons and one NCAA trip while a member of the WCHA; they joined in 1999. Northern Michigan has a .555 winning percentage since joining the CCHA in 1997, but the Wildcats have made just two NCAA appearances in that time.

For all these programs, there's at least the chance that improved odds of an NCAA bid will help them draw fans, keep them competitive for recruits, and help the bottom line. Unanswered questions remain about the actual league structure, as well as the postseason tournament.

But in the end, this was probably the best move for the future of all of college hockey. Now, we need to work on Alabama-Huntsville. I was worried about them two years ago, and that hasn't changed.

1 comment:

Dave D said...

I see two divisions, with one Alaska school in each. Four games against your four division rivals, two against each of the other division's teams. That way there are only two Alaska trip every other year.