By Austin Monteith
BEMIDJI, Minn. — Bemidji State, Minnesota State Mankato and five other schools that are currently members of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association announced Friday the “exploration” of a new NCAA Division I college men’s hockey conference to begin play with the 2021-22 season.
The seven institutions that made the announcement include Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State Mankato and Northern Michigan.
A news release from the schools sent by athletics consultant Morris Kurtz stated, “the group is comprised of institutions rich in history and tradition with a strong commitment to academic and athletic excellence. They are like-minded in their goals and aspirations for the potential new league with a focus on improving regional alignment and the overall student-athlete experience while building natural rivalries within a more compact geographic footprint.”
Kurtz also stated the potential new conference is “committed to providing the best possible collegiate hockey experience for its student-athletes, fans, and all stakeholders,” and that the group “would plan to establish itself as an elite hockey conference that would have the highest standards for overall competitiveness and rigorous non-conference scheduling, along with a level of institutional investment that demonstrates significant commitment to their hockey programs and facilities, while also establishing relationships with corporate partners and others that create a high degree of visibility and positive media exposure for the league.”
The seven schools have independently submitted formal Letters of Notice to the WCHA office to initiate the withdrawal process in accordance with WCHA Articles of Incorporation and Bylaw. They will continue to play in the WCHA during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, according to the release.
WCHA president and men’s league commissioner Bill Robertson also released a statement Friday.
“Late this afternoon, the WCHA office received communication from several of our Men’s League institutions that they intend to explore the creation of a new Division I men’s hockey conference that would begin play in 2021-22,” Robertson said in the release. “The institutions have indicated they intend to compete in the WCHA during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons. While this news is disappointing, the WCHA will work to assure that any members that do withdraw do so in accordance with WCHA Bylaws.”
WCHA bylaws require a 25-month period in order to withdraw, and that process was initiated Friday, Kurtz said in a phone interview.
Kurtz’s release stated that no further comment would be made by the seven schools during the initial stages of developing the potential new conference. Kurtz is a former athletic director at St. Cloud State.
Bemidji State head coach Tom Serratore declined comment and directed reporters to contact athletic director Tracy Dill. Dill deferred to Kurtz.
Kurtz said he was brought onboard several weeks ago to assist the schools as they explore creating a new league.
Future in question for UAH, Alaska schools
Three WCHA member schools were notably absent from the release: Alabama Huntsville, Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Fairbanks.
The three programs could be left without a conference to call home following the 2020-21 season if the WCHA’s seven other schools move forward with their plan for a new league.
The new conference would consolidate the seven Midwestern schools, while doing away with the WCHA’s farthest-flung members.
The current WCHA alignment took shape following the 2012-13 season when the college hockey landscape changed dramatically with the creation of a Big Ten hockey conference, kicking off a wave of conference realignment.
The remaining WCHA teams not to leave for the Big Ten or the newly created National Collegiate Hockey Conference — Alaska Anchorage, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech and Minnesota State — were joined by Alabama Huntsville, Alaska Fairbanks, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan to form a “new” 10-team WCHA ahead of the 2013-14 season.
“If you look around the country, certainly the entire college sports landscape has been shifting in recent years,” Kurtz said. “The same could be said for college hockey. It’s probably an ongoing discussion that institutions all around the country are having on their campuses.”
League membership had held firm since 2013-14, though questions emerged about the long-term future of the Alaska programs due to the state’s budget issues. Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed $130 million in state support to the University of Alaska system Friday.
In May, UAA announced it was moving home games from Sullivan Arena to a smaller on-campus rink beginning with the 2019-20 season due to increasing financial constraints caused by state budget cuts.
UAF also plans to shift home games from the Carlson Center to a smaller on-campus rink in two years due to concerns regarding the Carlson Center’s aging ice plant, KTUU-TV reported last week.
The UAH program has experienced its own troubles, including nearly folding a decade ago. However, in April, the school proposed a new on-campus arena be built for the school’s hockey, basketball and volleyball programs.
Representatives from the three schools could not be reached for comment Friday.
Other questions linger
The potential new conference would have only seven schools, which raises the question of who might be a potential eighth member.
Arizona State has been an NCAA Division I independent since 2015-16, and would be a logical choice to bring the new league to an even eight teams. ASU is the only NCAA Division I program without a conference.
“Due to the ever-changing college hockey landscape, we will continue to assess all opportunities for conference affiliation with the best interests of our university and program at the forefront,” ASU head coach Greg Powers said in a statement Friday. “Our ability to continuously construct an elite schedule each year maintains our stance as an independent as of right now.”
Kurtz, Robertson and WCHA spokesperson Todd Bell said the WCHA women’s league would not be impacted by Friday’s news. Bemidji State and Minnesota State field teams in both the WCHA men’s and women’s leagues.
A name for the potential new conference has been discussed, and Kurtz said the schools hope to have that matter settled in the “very near future.”
In the meantime, the seven teams will begin taking the necessary steps to establish a new league.
“The first thing we do is we’re going to establish our constitution and bylaws,” Kurtz said. “And once those are set, that’ll obviously give us a platform from which to move forward and deal with all of the issues and logistics that need to be taken care of in creating a conference.”
Matt Wellens of the Duluth News Tribune also contributed to this story.