ST. PAUL — Collectively, the University of St. Thomas and Central Collegiate Hockey Association wasted little time in securing the school’s move to the new conference.
Once the university received NCAA approval July 15 to move directly from Division III to Division I, it seemed inevitable that the Tommies would soon become the CCHA’s eighth member.
The news became official Wednesday, July 29, when both parties announced that the St. Thomas men’s hockey program had found a home in the CCHA beginning with the league’s inaugural 2021-22 season.
“From the beginning when I was hired a month ago, St. Thomas was my No. 1 target to add as the eighth member of the CCHA,” league commissioner Don Lucia said in a press conference held over Zoom. “I spoke to (St. Thomas athletic director Phil Esten) a week before I was actually announced. We started our dialogue at that time, and as I learned about what their thoughts and needs were, I thought that they would be a perfect match for this new CCHA.”
“The CCHA really is a perfect fit for St. Thomas,” Esten added. “I will say that we’re entering this with our eyes wide open (and) understand that it’s a journey. (We) certainly understand that this is the building process for us. But I also believe that if we do this right, we can build a competitive program and be really a value-added member in the league, one that’s aspiring to be among the very best in the country.”
Geographically, adding the Tommies was a no-brainer for a league that will feature current Western Collegiate Hockey Association members Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State and Northern Michigan.
“One of the most important things for the CCHA as we move forward is we want to maintain a regional footprint, and St. Thomas certainly adds that,” Lucia said. “Their location in the Twin Cities, in the media market, and all the hockey-playing members, the fans of the Twin Cities — we look forward to having them as part of the CCHA.”
Besides geography, the seven departing WCHA schools were looking for a program with a commitment to hockey. The CCHA believes it has found such a match in St. Thomas, the league’s first private institution and one with an endowment of more than $436 million.
“There’s no question in my mind that the University of St. Thomas has the same vision,” Lucia said. “The one thing I know about the University of St. Thomas is that they don’t do anything unless they do it first class. Their move to Division I, even though it may take a few years to build the type of facilities and add to their portfolio at the Division I level, they will do it. They have the leadership. They’re well connected within the Twin Cities with fundraising capabilities.”
With a conference home now confirmed, questions remain about the team’s home rink. The Tommies’ current home arena seats about 900 people and is located at St. Thomas Academy in suburban Mendota Heights, about nine miles from campus.
For now, the program will continue to call Mendota Heights home as it works out options for the future. In the meantime, Esten left open the possibility that St. Thomas could play “a game or two” at a larger venue.
“I think there are some pretty exciting opportunities for us, even in the interim, to host some pretty neat events in the Twin Cities marketplace,” Esten said. “We have started to think about what that future might look like. Again, (we’re in the) very, very early stages of trying to think through location, site, planning, renderings, capacities. And then, of course, the financing piece is the really important piece of that.”
As for the possibility of more expansion, Lucia sounded content with an eight-team CCHA.
“You never say never, but at the same time, eight is a great number,” the commissioner said. “I think that with our footprint within the Midwest it’s exactly what we wanted. We can sit with eight for a long time. If there’s a team out there that will make our league better, that’s going to add to the CCHA, then certainly I would be open to it and present it to the rest of the body.”
The new league’s membership now seems solidified and a commissioner is in place. In addition, it was announced Wednesday that Bemidji State University President Faith Hensrud will be the chair of the conference’s board of directors.
The CCHA is one step closer to taking the ice in 2021.
“There’s much to do over the next 12 months as we get ready for that first puck drop,” Lucia said. “I just couldn’t be more excited to be a part of this team with the CCHA and work with these great people.”