“I miss the old WCHA.”
It’s a refrain you hear not uncommonly from fans, usually clad in maroon and gold, as they stare out at a few thousand empty seats inside the Minnesota Gophers’ home rink, while a fantastic Big Ten hockey game with Notre Dame or Michigan State or Michigan is going on. Still they’re apparently feeling a longing for the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, which the Gophers left in 2013.
It makes the natural wiseacre want to reply with a simple question: “Which old WCHA do you miss?”
When college hockey first appeared on the radar of this particular 9-year-old fan in northern Minnesota, the WCHA was a league where the Gophers would routinely play conference games against Notre Dame, Michigan State and Michigan. Yep, same as today. They would face historical neighborhood rivals like North Dakota and Minnesota Duluth each year. Same as today. They would travel to Colorado College to face the Tigers, just like they will do three months from now.
When Minnesota Duluth won its first conference title, in 1984, the WCHA was a six-team league. When St. Cloud State joined up, a half-dozen years later, the WCHA had nine teams. Then Alaska Anchorage joined. Then Northern Michigan left. Then Minnesota State Mankato came on board. Then Nebraska Omaha and Bemidji State were folded in a few years later.
By the time of college hockey’s great realignment in the early part of this decade, there were a dozen WCHA teams playing in four different time zones. So when you hear fans use nostalgia for “the old WCHA” as a reason for staying away from their home rink, it’s easy to find holes in the logic.
But logic and reason aren’t always prominent parts of the picture when college hockey fandom is considered. Around these parts of the college hockey world, there has seemingly always been a loyalty to teams first, but to conferences a close second. In the waning moments of the 2000 national championship game in Providence, R.I., when Lee Goren’s on-ice magic show had concluded, North Dakota had pulled decisively ahead of Boston College, and the school’s seventh NCAA hockey title was close at hand, the small but passionate group of green-clad fans in one corner of the rink chanted “Let’s Go Sioux!” over and over, but switched chants for a few seconds. From the pressbox on the other side of the rink, they could clearly be heard chanting “WCHA! WCHA! WCHA!” as if to claim that not only is our team better than you on the rink, our entire part of the country is better than yours when it comes to putting a puck in the net.
Maybe that happens in other conferences and in other sports, although one struggles to recall Auburn fans rooting for Alabama come playoff time, just because they’re both from the SEC. And when Wisconsin played Duke in the 2015 Final Four title game, one did not hear of many Gophers fans wanting Bucky to win for the glory of Big Ten hoops.
That 2000 title by North Dakota was the start of the WCHA’s last great run of glory, when the former Fighting Sioux, plus Minnesota, Denver and Wisconsin combined to bring six NCAA titles to the conference in seven seasons. The 2005 Frozen Four was a single-conference affair, with Minnesota and Colorado College falling to North Dakota and Denver, respectively, in the semifinals in Columbus, Ohio, that season. Between the Gophers’ Jordan Leopold in 2002 and North Dakota’s Ryan Duncan in 2007, the conference also claimed six straight Hobey Baker Award recipients.
A decade later, everything was different. And if the worst-case scenarios implied by the expected dissolution of the current WCHA play out, the conference may be gone before it can celebrate the 70th anniversary of its 1951 founding.
College hockey is an ever-changing organism. Fans of Arizona State can tell you why that’s a good thing. Fans at Illinois expect to tell a happy tale soon. Hockey fans at Illinois-Chicago, Fairfield, Findlay and Wayne State can tell a different story. Those were the four most recent Division I programs to fold, in 1996, 2003, 2004 and 2008, respectively.
The news of late June, where seven members of the WCHA’s current incarnation are exploring a conference of their own, means the likelihood of a further changing landscape in the western college hockey world. And it means a real risk that Alabama-Huntsville, Alaska and Alaska Anchorage will join that dear departed quartet, along with the likes of Kent State, St. Louis, Northern Arizona and others who tried and failed at college hockey for various reasons.
Already the lines are being drawn and dots being connected by those who like to speculate about such things. One theory says that six of the “Sayonara Seven” from the current WCHA will re-form the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (which went away in 2013), plus grab Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan from the NCHC. Minnesota State Mankato will slide over to the NCHC, which will grab Arizona State, so there will be two eight-team conferences going forward. The net will be the loss of three programs, which nobody wants, but such is the nature of the ever-changing world of college hockey conferences.
And sure as anything, during a Gophers game versus Illinois in a few years, a fan will look at the ice wistfully, where bright orange sweaters fill the visitors bench, and sigh as they say, “I miss the old Big Ten.”