Monday, June 27, 2011

Tsunami Watch: WCHA

The other conference due to lose teams to the Big Ten is the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. Minnesota and Wisconsin, right now, are a very important part of the WCHA's core, but unlike the CCHA, the WCHA seems to be in a fairly decent position before other chess pieces start moving. Why? Well, it's in part a numbers game and in part a strength game. The CCHA is losing 3 of their 11 teams, while the WCHA loses 2 of 12 - fewer of more. The CCHA teams that will form part of the Big Ten represent a solid chunk of the power teams of that conference. The WCHA teams still leave behind a number of strong programs.

So while we talked about an uncertain future for the CCHA, the WCHA seems poised to carry on reasonably well despite the loss of a charter member in Minnesota and a major player in Wisconsin.

Still, the WCHA is poised to have at least some significant change with the advent of the Big Ten. Whereas before, Hockey East has been their only real consistent adversary for the title of the nation's top league, they'll now have to contend with a Hockey East that will not be losing any of its top teams as well as the Big Ten itself. Will that weaken the position of some of the WCHA's programs? It could, but that would be a long-term effect. Here's what the short-term probably has in store for the schools of the WCHA.

Colorado College, Denver and North Dakota: The remaining heavy hitters of the WCHA, more or less. These schools will be the three remaining charter members of the league that have been there since the very start (Michigan Tech was also a charter member, but left for three seasons in the early 1980s). They've always given the WCHA a little more gravitas outside of Minnesota and Wisconsin, and they'll be the core of the new WCHA - precisely the reason that the conference itself will be OK.

Bemidji State, Minnesota State and St. Cloud State: Collectively, the MnSCU schools. Typically cast in the role of the little brother to the University of Minnesota system, they will sorely miss the revenue that the Gophers bring with them when they come into town. Bemidji State is still breathing a sigh of relief to be in the WCHA after the CHA collapsed, but the Mavericks and Huskies are sure to be extra disappointed - there's little assurance that the Gophers will come to Mankato and St. Cloud if they aren't required to. Regardless, they're very much set where they are and since the WCHA will easily be able to press on with the remaining programs, they're going to be pretty much untouched by the Big Ten with the exception of the revenue issue.

Minnesota-Duluth: The national champions finally emerged from the shadow of their cousins from the Twin Cities by raising the NCAA title for the first time, but they, like the MnSCU schools, enjoy some solid benefits from bringing the Gophers to town - though it's more likely that they'll still be able to schedule some non-conference games with them in the future given their historic and institutional links. In some ways, their championship this season makes them yet another player in keeping the WCHA vibrant after Minnesota and Wisconsin leave, though their history before that has always made them a key component of the league.

Nebraska-Omaha: The Mavericks moved from the CCHA to the WCHA last year in part because they saw the Big Ten coming down the pike - in some ways, their move was the real second move, simply taking place before the first move of the Big Ten. They're just thankful they were the ones that took the conference up on its membership offer, and they'll be just fine in the WCHA.

Alaska-Anchorage and Michigan Tech: Life's hard enough for the Seawolves and Huskies lately without having to find new accommodations. The departure of the two Big Ten schools is likely to have the least amount of real impact on these programs even though both Minnesota and Wisconsin were big draws no matter where they went. They'll be OK with the 10-team WCHA, though as mentioned in our discussion on the CCHA, the Huskies have ample reason to at the very least take a long, hard look at leaving, and the Seawolves don't have much incentive to bail to any other league because of the benefits of having the Alaska schools in separate conferences.

Expansion?
Unless Michigan Tech decides to fly the coop - or perhaps, even if they decide to leave - expansion really isn't going to be foremost on the WCHA's mind even in the wake of the Big Ten's formation, in part because the league has been reluctant in the past to expand. When everyone and their mother was clamoring for Bemidji State to be allowed into the WCHA as College Hockey America was collapsing in on itself, the league moved only slowly in the direction of bringing them (and ultimately, UNO) on board. Why? Because they haven't had much of a reason to expand. As one of the top leagues in the nation - especially in the last decade, where they won six of seven national championships in a row from 2000 to 2006 - they aren't going to bring just anyone aboard.

And yet, candidates exist - both of which we touched on earlier, but let's look at the league's perspective on them.

Notre Dame: The Irish would likely be a strong candidate from the league's perspective, because the notability of the school and the recent established strength of the program would both be instant boosts to the league's reputation, especially in the wake of the departure of two of its stalwarts in both of those categories. As mentioned, their new hockey facility will have a big enough capacity to fit into the league - at a capacity of roughly 5,000, they won't be above the league average but will have a larger facility than Minnesota State, Bemidji State, or Michigan Tech.

The one problem the league will have to overcome is its lack of "name" schools, which is the thing the Irish are chiefly expected to try to escape the CCHA over. Though the WCHA has some of the top hockey programs in the nation in its ranks, it has only two Division I schools after the Big Ten split - Denver and North Dakota. The Pioneers have only been a full D-I school since 1999, and the Sioux have only been D-I since 2008. Neither compete in a major conference in other D-I sports.

Miami: The Redhawks have a number of hurdles to get over before they would be accepted in the WCHA. First, as mentioned last week, their brand new arena, while awesome, would be the smallest in the WCHA. Second, Ohio stretches the footprint more than Indiana. Third, they don't have the "name" that Notre Dame has. And finally, the WCHA isn't going to be keen to rip both Notre Dame and Miami out of the CCHA (given that they probably wouldn't take Miami without the Irish leaving too - the CCHA minus just the Big Ten schools could probably hack it, but that seems fairly unlikely), since that would not be in the best interest of college hockey as a whole as it would only make the CCHA's situation all the more dire.

Northern Michigan: Another former WCHA program that could potentially come calling again. The Wildcats at least have this going for them - of the remaining CCHA teams, they'd probably have the best shot at getting in by far, but that's not really saying much.

It's worth noting here that the WCHA, now that they've brought in Bemidji State and Nebraska-Omaha, have established a pretty firm foothold on college hockey west of the Mississippi. If any major schools from the region - from the soon to be Pac-12, for instance - were to start a varsity program, the WCHA would in practical terms get the right of first refusal (minus, of course, the Big Ten's Nebraska-Lincoln).

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