(Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a three-part series on how the NCHC was formed and how it got to where it is today as college hockey’s dominant conference).
The first meeting happened on Wednesday, March 9, 2011.
Six representatives from four schools met in a small conference room at the Hilton Chicago O’Hare Airport Hotel.
They sat in a circle with an easel board behind them.
They brainstormed ideas on what to do about the impending announcement that the Big Ten would begin sponsoring a hockey conference, pulling traditional powers Minnesota and Wisconsin out of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State out of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
What would become of their leagues?
How could they protect their own men’s hockey programs?
UND athletic director Brian Faison, University of Denver ADs Peg Bradley-Doppes and Ron Grahame, Miami University ADs Brad Bates and Josh Fenton and Notre Dame associate AD Tom Nevala wrote anything that came to mind on that easel board.
When a page was full, they’d flip it over and start writing on the next one.
Most of the conversations centered on starting a new conference -- not merging the WCHA and CCHA.
Nothing was decided at the meeting, but it was the first step toward what would eventually become the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
As the 2018-19 season begins tonight for UND at Bemidji State, the NCHC has become college hockey’s most dominant league.
Its nonconference winning percentage of .624 is the best in college hockey during the past five years -- almost 60 points higher than Hockey East’s .565.
It has sent eight teams to the Frozen Four -- 40 percent of the field in the last five years. No other league has sent more than five.
And it has won three consecutive NCAA national titles -- UND in 2016, Denver in 2017 and Minnesota Duluth in 2018.
The league has turned a profit in every season of existence and has been the only Western-based college hockey conference able to maintain a neutral-site postseason tournament.
It has been everything that the athletic directors hoped for when they conjured up the idea of starting a new conference during the summer of 2011.
But putting the league together was an arduous process of which few details have ever been reported.
The Herald conducted interviews this fall with nearly every key player in the process to piece together what was happening behind the scenes and how the NCHC rose so quickly to prominence.
A blowup in Florida
The March 9 meeting in Chicago was borne out of informal talks between Bradley-Doppes and Bates.
The two athletic directors had long-standing connections. Bradley-Doppes coached volleyball at Michigan and Miami. Bates went to Michigan and was the AD at Miami.
The meeting happened two weeks before the Big Ten was officially announced, but by that point, it was obvious that the Big Ten was going to happen.
A month after the Chicago meeting, the schools hired a consulting firm, the Goldwater Group, to help with the possible formation of the new conference.
It was a significant, yet preliminary step.
The WCHA schools weren’t quite set on leaving their league yet.
Despite having major concerns about the future of the league without Minnesota and Wisconsin and questions about the WCHA’s leadership, they were also wary about stepping away from a league steeped in tradition and brand value that was built over a half century.
They were also concerned about leaving a league that had $2 million in reserve funds that was built up by their programs. That was a lot of money to leave on the table, they thought.
But that all changed at the annual WCHA meetings in Florida in late April.
The cracks in the foundation of the WCHA had formed long before those meetings, but those meetings illuminated the problems to the point where several athletic directors determined that staying the course was no longer tenable.
For several years, a handful of athletic directors in the WCHA were quietly unhappy with the leadership of commissioner Bruce McLeod.
They felt he wasn’t proactive enough and that the league rested on its laurels.
There were also two factions of the league: the bigger-budget schools and the smaller-budget schools. While the larger-budget schools usually wanted to spend and invest, the smaller-budget schools often wanted to control costs.
With Minnesota and Wisconsin leaving the league, the smaller-budget schools would now control the voting block -- something that concerned UND and Denver, among others.
With that undercurrent, there were some dramatic moments in the meetings, which were described as “most uncomfortable,” “total chaos” and “dysfunctional” by those who attended.
At one point, Faison asked how the league would replace the revenue that Minnesota and Wisconsin brought to the league. McLeod said that it wouldn’t be a problem. He had looked at a forecast and said it would happen. Faison challenged him on that notion.
At another point, the late Alaska Anchorage athletic director Steve Cobb cursed at the larger-budget schools and demanded to know whether they were leaving or not. He then proposed a $500,000 buyout for any school that leaves the WCHA.
The larger-budget schools, who felt they had long subsidized Alaska Anchorage, were irate.
Cobb’s proposal was tabled and never voted on.
Colorado College athletic director Ken Ralph, a concerned Alaska Anchorage alum, pulled Cobb aside after the meeting and told him: “If it continues going in this direction, the league is going to break up. Conversations are already happening.”
With McLeod out of the room, Faison stood up and advocated for the non-renewal of the commissioner’s contract. Faison felt that McLeod hadn’t been proactive enough in finding ways to replace Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“The most troubling thing was there didn’t seem to be any sense of urgency that this was something we really needed to be concerned with,” Faison said about the WCHA losing Minnesota and Wisconsin. “You’ve got the CCHA, and they’re dealing with the same issues. To us, the time to get after it was then. We didn’t want to be sitting around and end up with a situation that ultimately didn’t benefit the league.
“At that point, it was clear to everyone in the room that there were serious issues.”
Faison and others left the meeting under the belief that a retirement plan was going to be offered to McLeod.
A few hours later, they learned that the WCHA’s Executive Council -- a rotating group of athletic directors that happened to be populated with the smaller-budget schools at the time -- had signed McLeod to an extension.
“By then, the train was off the tracks,” Faison said. “That was it for me. That was it for several people.”
The birth of the NCHC
Soon after leaving Florida, conversations heated up about starting a new league.
At one point, a group of athletic directors thought about creating a league that was populated with only fully Division I schools -- UND, Denver, Omaha, Miami, Western Michigan and Bowling Green.
There was a concern that multi-division issues pop up by adding Division II and Division III schools to the conference.
But that talk quickly shifted toward creating a league populated by schools where hockey was king on campus.
That meant adding Colorado College to the mix.
In early May, Faison flew to Denver to meet with Ralph and Bradley-Doppes at the Country Inn and Suites by Denver International Airport.
They sat at a small table in the breakfast area for roughly five hours and began working on specifics of starting a new league.
To them, this was the birthplace of the NCHC.
“We had to protect our programs,” Faison said. “We didn’t feel that was something the WCHA was going to do at the time.”
They discussed potential members of the league and started reaching out to them.
The initial group featured UND, Denver, Miami and Notre Dame -- the four schools that initially met in Chicago in March -- as well as Colorado College, Omaha and Minnesota Duluth.
Omaha had just gone all-in on hockey, cutting its football and men’s wrestling programs to make men’s hockey the centerpiece of its athletic department.
Minnesota Duluth had just opened brand new AmsOil Arena months earlier and won the 2011 NCAA national championship.
They had some in-person meetings. Faison traveled to Omaha to meet with AD Trev Alberts. Western Michigan president John Dunn and athletic director Kathy Beauregard traveled to Grand Forks to lobby to get in the league.
They conducted numerous teleconferences.
“We had tons and tons of conference calls,” Doppes-Bradley said. “Way too many. But the quality of candid professional conversations was remarkable. It was really neat to see.”
Seven schools traveled back to the Hilton Chicago O’Hare Airport Hotel in late May or early June for another in-person meeting -- UND, Denver, Colorado College, Omaha, Minnesota Duluth, Miami and Notre Dame.
At this meeting, all but Notre Dame made a verbal agreement to join the league.
For the next couple of weeks, the legal counsels at the schools drafted a Letter of Agreement. Miami’s legal counsel led the process.
At the end of June, presidents and chancellors signed the Letter of Agreement to join the new, startup league.
It wasn’t until July 1 that the Herald broke the news that these teams were in deep talks about pulling out of the WCHA and CCHA to start a new league.
Athletic directors tried to keep it out of the media as long as they could by avoiding communication that reporters could find via open-record searches.
On July 7, the Herald reported that the league was a done deal. Two days later, a press release confirmed it, and an introductory press conference was held July 13 in Colorado Springs, which would become the league’s home.
The name of the league was revealed at the press conference. It was settled on just days earlier.
The next steps
Soon after the press conference, the backlash started.
Faison received numerous emails calling him the “killer of college hockey.”
But the athletic directors quickly shifted their focus to additional members.
Notre Dame was first and foremost on their minds. The Fighting Irish had been a part of all conversations going back to that initial meeting in March.
Miami fought to add Western Michigan, a fellow Mid-American Conference member in other sports and a geographical fit.
Western Michigan lost head coach Jeff Blashill to the Detroit Red Wings organization, but made a splash by hiring longtime NHL coach Andy Murray to replace him.
Other teams under consideration were St. Cloud State, MSU-Mankato and Bowling Green.
Initially, St. Cloud State president Earl Potter said that his school wasn’t interested in joining the league, but he walked that statement back. Potter personally called Colorado College’s Ralph and lobbied for two hours on the phone one day.
Former UND men’s hockey coach Gino Gasparini, who was hired as an advisor by St. Cloud State, also lobbied behind the scenes. Gasparini had tight connections to key players at the NCHC schools: As UND’s head coach recruited and coached Dave Hakstol and Scott Sandelin, the head coaches at UND and Minnesota Duluth, and he hired Dean Blais, Omaha’s head coach.
Notre Dame was on the fence about joining the NCHC, and the league had concerns about Notre Dame.
They just watched drama unfold in the college football world -- specifically the Big 12 -- because certain teams were favorites in conferences.
The NCHC didn’t want that to happen.
“We made this real commitment early on that the strength of any possible future conference would only and solely be determined by the unity of its membership,” Alberts said. “We saw the impact on college football based on one program demanding to be treated differently than others. It pulls a conference apart at the seams. We made a commitment to four or five core principles and we were determined not to deviate.”
Notre Dame wanted to control the league’s television deal, and NCHC members stayed committed to not letting them do that.
The NCHC set a deadline for Notre Dame to decide in the early fall. The Fighting Irish called and asked for an extension, but the NCHC said no.
“The only way the league would work is if people put their own individual needs in the background and were willing to make a commitment for the league,” said Ralph, who is now the athletic director at Maine. “It was unbelievable -- considering how competitive and driven everybody is -- that everyone was able to do that. A lot of credit is due to Brian Faison at North Dakota. He deserves a ton of credit for putting ego aside and doing what’s right for the league. And in the end, it probably helped his team win a national title.
“I’ve been involved in a lot of leagues. I’ve never been in a league willing to put the league first as much as that one.”
In the end, Notre Dame ended up in Hockey East.
The NCHC accepted St. Cloud State and Western Michigan as the seventh and eighth members on Sept. 21.
“The league carried their cards pretty close to the vest,” Gasparini said. “I had a lot of conversations with a lot of people involved in the league, trying to figure out where their thoughts were, where their thinking was. They were looking for strong institutional commitments from schools who were highly committed to their programs and growth. That was very evident from St. Cloud.”
The league had its eight members. Now, the work began to find a commissioner and put the league’s structure in place.