One year ago this week, the college hockey world was upended by news out of the Upper Midwest.
Seven Western Collegiate Hockey Association programs announced on June 28, 2019, that they would seek to form a new conference to begin play with the 2021-22 season. The sudden announcement, on a Friday afternoon before the Fourth of July, caught much of the sport by surprise.
More conference realignment? Here we go again.
A year later, the new league has a name (an old one), a commissioner and seven teams -- Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State and Northern Michigan -- in search of an eighth member.
What has transpired in the year since? What is still to come with the new league?
For starters, there’s the name. The seven-team league revived the Central Collegiate Hockey Association name in February, a safe pick for a moniker that already has history behind it.
More recently, longtime coach Don Lucia was tabbed to take charge of the league as commissioner. You’d be hard pressed to find a better pick to run your new conference than someone with Lucia’s reputation.
Then there’s been turmoil among the three programs left behind in the WCHA.
For a time there were doubts whether Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Fairbanks would even take to the ice in 2019-20 due to the state’s budget crisis. The WCHA released a statement last August confirming they’d play, and another in November that they’d return in 2020-21, but that’s never a good sign when that has to be reaffirmed.
Farther south, the Alabama Huntsville program actually was dead for a week, a victim of pandemic-related budget cuts, before being resurrected by a remarkable fan-led fundraiser that generated nearly $1 million. The program still has much to prove, however, if it wants to survive for the long haul.
Such uncertainty, along with geography, will likely put the Chargers -- or the Seawolves and Nanooks for that matter -- out of the running to be the CCHA’s eighth member. Lucia indicated in his introductory news conference two weeks ago that adding an eighth team is a priority for the league, while citing the need for institutional commitment to hockey and a desire to stay within the conference’s geographic footprint.
That sure points to St. Thomas being the favorite to join the league, a move that’s contingent upon the school receiving permission from the NCAA to jump straight from Division III to Division I. The Tommies should clear that hurdle with little trouble.
“They certainly would be a candidate,” Lucia said. “They have a rich tradition academically and athletically.”
Meanwhile, WCHA men’s league commissioner Bill Robertson hopes the almost 70-year-old conference can stay afloat with UAH and the Alaska schools.
The WCHA is looking to add at least three teams for the 2021-22 season to give the league the six teams required for it to maintain its automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, assuming the Alaska programs and Alabama Huntsville are still around by then.
Among the schools the WCHA is pursuing are Arizona State, a Division I independent since 2015, and Long Island University, which plans to begin play as a D-I independent this fall. Other schools in consideration are Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo., which has a D-I women’s program and a club men’s program; Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, the NCAA’s lone Canadian member, though its hockey program is a club team; and St. Thomas.
In the end, the most significant development in college hockey since last June is COVID-19. No one expected a year ago that a pandemic would threaten whether the 2020-21 season might even happen at all.
In all likelihood, this latest round of conference realignment might just be getting started. I’ll keep my eyes glued to my inbox this Friday just in case.
FloHockey to stream CCHA games
FloHockey.tv announced Tuesday that it had reached a multi-year deal to be the exclusive streaming home of the CCHA beginning with the league’s inaugural 2021-22 season.
The agreement covers all regular-season games to include preseason, nonconference matchups and the entire CCHA postseason tournament.
FloHockey has been the streaming home of the WCHA for the last two seasons.