In a late Friday afternoon news dump, Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State-Mankato and Northern Michigan announced they were pulling out of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association to form a new men's league, leaving the futures of Alaska-Anchorage, Alaska-Fairbanks and Alabama-Huntsville in peril.
In addition to sending shockwaves throughout the college hockey world, many of us were left with a strange sense of deja vu as well.
The sport has been down this very road before. It was in June 2011 that Colorado College, Denver, Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota, Miami and Minnesota Duluth confirmed they were leaving the WCHA following a week of leaks, rumors and reports. A few days later, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference was formally introduced to the world, touting its members’ “high level of competitiveness,” “wonderful history and tradition” and “an institutional commitment to compete at the highest level within Division I.”
No phrase during that announcement rankled those in college hockey more, though, than “like-minded institutions.” That was especially true in places like Bemidji, Mankato and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Nine years later, I felt like I was reading the same press release all over again as the WCHA’s Runaway Seven described themselves as “institutions rich in history and tradition” seeking to form a league with “the highest standards for overall competitiveness” and “a level of institutional investment that demonstrates significant commitment.”
And yes, “like-minded” appeared in the announcement as well.
As ironic as that is, it’s also appropriate. Like the NCHC’s Original Six and the two others that joined later — St. Cloud State and Western Michigan — the WCHA’s Runaway Seven are doing what each truly believes is in the best interest of their men’s hockey programs.
The big difference, however, between what happened eight years ago and what happened Friday is that when the NCHC was formed, the leftovers had somewhere to go. There were a number of options.
The Seawolves and Nanooks — whose University of Alaska system is facing even more budget cuts — and Chargers — who are in the process of trying to get a new on-campus rink — likely have nowhere to go come 2021-22, when the new league expects to begin play.
And Friday’s news will do nothing but hurt each of the fights they are in.
Unfortunately, Friday’s announcement was at least three years in the making, if not more, as some schools had already begun discussing the idea of breaking away from the WCHA when Minnesota State made a run at joining the NCHC in the summer of 2016. A coach, who is no longer in the WCHA, floated the idea of a rebirth of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association back then, though when pressed about the seriousness of the discussions, he admitted it was nothing more than schools spitballing.
Asked about our three-year-old conversation over the weekend and how that all finally came to fruition, he said, “I’m surprised it took this long.”
Like it has for the members of the NCHC, the move these seven schools are making could very well work out for the very best, but at what cost to college hockey and at what cost to the reputation of these seven schools?
Nine years ago, they all came together to save each other and do what’s best for college hockey. Dubbed “The Leftovers,” it was easy to root for the underdogs that made up the “new” WCHA over the past six seasons.
That’s no longer the case. Turns out the WCHA’s Runaway Seven are just as “like-minded” as everyone else.