Minot State coach excited to grow program, perhaps possibilities by playing Denver, Colorado College
“This is an incredible opportunity for our program to play two premier teams at the highest level of collegiate hockey," says Minot State head coach Wyatt Waselenchuk
MINOT, N.D. — Minot State is the top-ranked team in the American Collegiate Hockey Association and a two-time national champion.
Next season the Beavers will play exhibition games against Colorado College and Denver in back-to-back games at those teams’ home rinks in Colorado in late December. Denver is the defending and nine-time NCAA Division I champion, now ranked third in the country. Colorado College is a two-time Division I champion.
Minot State head coach Wyatt Waselenchuk said the team was traveling by bus through Oklahoma this winter when he got a text message from Denver head coach David Carle about a possible matchup. Colorado College was looking for a game as well.
“This is an incredible opportunity for our program to play two premier teams at the highest level of collegiate hockey," said Waselenchuk, who played for the Beavers from 2010-14. “I couldn't be more excited for our players to experience the atmosphere and the competition. We will certainly have a challenge ahead of us, but we are going to embrace it every step of the way.”
About the ACHA
The Beavers are an ACHA Tier I team, perhaps rivaling NCAA Division III-level play. They’re 29-3 this season with an 18-0 home record. Waselenchuk said sometimes the difference is a financial one for his players to play ACHA hockey instead of elsewhere based on the amount of tuition they can afford.
“For my guys, it's as simple as this. It comes down to cost,” he told The Rink Live.
The ACHA is a group of about 450 teams nationwide that play as non-varsity programs. Lindenwood, coached by Rick Zombo, won the ACHA championship last season and made the transition from Division I this season. Most ACHA teams are part of a conference. Minot State plays as an independent, which allows the school to have more flexibility in its scheduling.
Like Lindenwood and other top-tier ACHA school-funded programs, it’s not a club program. Most ACHA programs, Waselenchuk admits, are.
“That term ‘club’ gets thrown around where you're assuming that players are paying to play and providing their own equipment and things like that. I mean, I've got a stick budget that probably rivals a lot of teams’ full budgets,” he said.
In Waselenchuk’s mind, the Beavers never fit that ‘club’ description.
“This is true club hockey to 50 teams out of 70,” Waselenchuk said. “I've been around this program for 12 years now and I’ve never even fathomed using that word.”
The Minot State hockey program, while not a varsity sport like the school’s NCAA Division II offerings, became fully funded by the school in 2022. The team plays on the Pepsi Rink with 1,800 seats inside Maysa Arena about three miles from campus.
Minot State is one of eight ACHA teams to win at least two national titles. Penn State has six, and — for context — North Dakota State won three times in the early ‘90s.
The team’s schedule, roster and other information is fully blended into Minot State’s athletics website with its other NCAA Division II programs.
“We're very fortunate to be where we're at and where we're located in the country. And we're very fortunate to have a school that's just so, so supportive of us from our president on down," Waselenchuk said. "It's just, it's pretty darn cool."
Minot State’s players, while not on athletic scholarships, have strong backgrounds in junior hockey, so taking on those NCHC teams next December shouldn’t be too big of a shock. Freshman Joey Moffatt of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, leads the Beavers with 19 goals this season and junior Carter Barley of St. Andrews, Manitoba, has a team-high 54 points.
“All these guys. I mean, you look at anybody on my team, they played with someone that's playing in the NHL, they played with 20 guys that are playing D-I hockey. I mean, you're coming from Tier II, whether it's Canada or North American League or the USHL, and that's where my entire team is from,” Waselenchuk said. “You're gonna find those kids that were just not quite top six, not quite top four on the back end. That's kind of where they fall into that D-III or high-end ACHA.”
NCAA paved way
The matchup for Minot State is possible because in 2021, the NCAA Committee for Legislative Relief approved a waiver that allowed for NCAA teams to play exhibition games against other college teams at the Division I, II, III or ACHA level.
Prior to that, NCAA teams frequently played Canadian teams, such as Manitoba making routine trips to start the University of North Dakota’s slate. The COVID-19 pandemic changed those options as the borders closed. The NCAA extended that waiver a year and has now made it permanent.
Denver has already taken advantage. To open the season, the Pioneers hosted UNLV of the ACHA, winning 10-0 at Magness Arena. In a previous exhibition game in 2021, the Pioneers beat Lindenwood 9-1 before the Lions made the leap from the ACHA to Division I.
“We appreciate the opportunity. They treated us like gold here,” UNLV head coach Anthony Vignieri Greener told College Hockey News after the Denver loss.
UNLV is one of those teams, like Lindenwood or Arizona State, that may one day clear a path to join the Division I ranks.
“Every kid I recruit I tell them, it could happen tomorrow, it could happen in three years,” Vignieri Greener said in College Hockey News. “But right now I want to win at this level. We have a couple D-I transfers, D-III transfers — they've all played at a high level. So could you play a hybrid year if that came? Yeah. Would it be great right off the bat? No."
A Division I future?
Does Minot State have plans or thoughts to become North Dakota’s second school with a Division I hockey program?
“Right now, this community I do believe would support that. We'd be all over it, but I do think there’s incredible financial hurdles,” Waselenchuk said.
COVID-19 and its restrictions at the Canadian border didn’t help, either, the head coach said.
“But I do know that there's been some buzz over the last few years within the hockey community certainly. I've answered that question once a week for the last two years. ‘What's the plan with this program?’” Waselenchuk said. “And I wouldn't say it's off the table by any means, but certainly not on the table as of today.”
Minot State’s fall enrollment opened with 2,761 students, up 2.4% over 2021, the university reported. For Canadian students, that number has remained constant during the COVID era, ranging from 175 for fall 2019 to 163 for fall of 2022, but down from 271 students from the school's fall 2009 figures.
But a taste of DIvision I hockey is only 10 months away.
“This is a huge step for our hockey program here at Minot State,” said Minot State sophomore forward Jay Buchholz, a former Fargo Davies player.
After high school, Buchholz played in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, in the NAHL with the Minot Minotauros and with the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede. In Sioux Falls, he was teammates with Cole Sillinger, who is now in his second NHL season with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“That’s the fine line, right?” Waselenchuk said. “That’s the beauty of it.”
For now, Minot State is enjoying packing Maysa Arena with 1,500 fans as warmer climate, big-name universities trek to northern North Dakota in the heart of winter. It hosted Oregon for a three-game series in mid-November and the Beavers won by a combined 24-3 score.
“I mean, the Ducks came here and for people to see that on a poster, it’s like holy (expletive)! What’s going on here?” Waselenchuk said.
For Buchholtz, playing against Denver and Colorado College is a huge opportunity that won’t be forgotten.
“Being able to play these top Division I schools, and the opportunity to go out and compete, is something that we can learn a lot from. Who knows what kind of doors these could open for us in the future,” Buchholz said. “It will be an unforgettable experience, and we are excited to be a part of the first two games in Beaver hockey history at the NCAA D-I level.”