Wednesday, February 15, 2012

WIAC Schools Leaving NCHA

Big news out of local Division III hockey Wednesday, as the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletics Conference announced its five hockey-playing member schools will leave the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association after the 2013-14 season.

In an emailed statement, WIAC commissioner Gary Karner says the move was announced now so the remaining NCHA teams -- only Duluth-based St. Scholastica and St. Norbert out of Green Bay for men's hockey -- would have a chance to figure out what they are going to do.

Karner noted that the current budgetary challenges confronting all WIAC institutions and the composition of the NCHA (a single-sport conference comprised of institutions that are members of six different multi-sport conferences as well as five institutions that are members for women’s ice hockey only) were among a number of factors that led to a decision that is deemed to be in the long-term, best interests of the WIAC.

This means that UWS, UW-Eau Claire, UW-River Falls, UW-Stevens Point, and UW-Stout will be breaking off from the NCHA and forming a five-team league.

Immediately, alarm bells should be ringing. You need seven in your league to get an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament. Why would a five-team group form its own league without some sort of assurance it will eventually get to that seven-team minimum?

That means something is in the hopper here.

According to a source, the WIAC is expected to target -- get this -- St. Scholastica and St. Norbert as hockey-only members. Issues surrounding financial aid, transfers, and such are at play. These are issues that existed when I was actively covering the league a few years ago, so none of it is really news. Simply put, this looks like a WIAC power play, meant to get control over rules that it sees as beneficial to the private schools in the NCHA.

The WIAC may also seek a footprint in the Milwaukee area, which would potentially mean going after current MCHA members Milwaukee School of Engineering and Concordia, which is based in Mequon. Concordia is in the NCHA for women's hockey, and the WIAC would need to add three non-WIAC schools for women's hockey in order to secure enough teams for an NCAA automatic bid.

There could be impacts on women's hockey, depending on how the WIAC goes after new members to strengthen the league and get enough teams to secure NCAA autobids. That's much less clear at this point.

In a statement from the school, UWS athletic director Steve Nelson made it clear that the door isn't closed on WIAC membership for anyone.

“This was an incredibly difficult decision, as the WIAC schools have had a significant impact on the history of the NCHA.  We didn’t just come to this juncture overnight. We put a lot of thought into this decision, making sure we were doing right by our membership and our student-athletes going forward and as a body we felt this was the best decision, to withdraw from the NCHA and compete solely in the WIAC.

... “This league, the NCHA means a lot to me.  I coached in this league for a long time and I have a lot of love for the NCHA and the teams that compete here.  There have been some tremendous battles over the years and the rivalries that have been developed are among the best in college hockey. At the same time I’m very excited about the future.  The WIAC is going to give our schools every opportunity to be a power in NCAA Division III.  The door is also open for other schools to apply to be members of the WIAC and make us an even stronger league going forward.”

I don't know what this means in the end, but it's interesting to see one of the traditionally powerful leagues in Division III get blown up for unknown reasons. It sounds vaguely familiar to many of you, I'm sure.

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