With the announcement Friday that WCHA men’s hockey commissioner Bill Robertson is moving to the United States Hockey League, college hockey’s most-storied conference appears to have taken its last breath.
The oldest U.S. college hockey conference could survive in a new form down the road, Robertson said, but there will be no WCHA men’s hockey in 2021-22.
“The conference tournament, the Final 5, was as good a tournament as the NCAA Frozen Four, maybe better — and certainly did better,” Robertson said. “With all the championship teams and Hobey Baker winners in its 70-year history, it’s very sad to see that not continuing.”
The writing has been on the wall since the bulk of the WCHA’s men’s teams announced their intention to reform the Central Collegiate Hockey League two years ago. Starting this fall, it will be the new home to Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State Mankato and Northern Michigan.
That leaves the WCHA, still the nation’s top women’s league, with only two men’s teams, Alaska and Alaska-Anchorage — and Anchorage is on a two-year fundraising hiatus.
Since joining the WCHA seven years ago, Robertson had been trying to add teams, most prominently the new program at Arizona State. But it became more about survival after seven teams gave notice that they would be leaving in June 2019. Under NCAA bylaws, conferences need at least six teams to keep their automatic tournament bid.
Minnesota and Wisconsin left the WCHA to form the Big Ten for the 2013-14 seasons, and North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud State, Nebraska Omaha, Colorado College and Denver left to join the National Collegiate Hockey Conference the same year. Robertson had been courting several schools, from the Sun Devils in Arizona, Simon Fraser in British Columbia and the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.
“They were always interested,” he said. “Then when the pandemic hit, everything stopped.”
The St. Thomas women joined the WCHA in its jump to Division I, but the men opted for the CCHA, in some ways the final nail in the coffin for a conference that has 38 national titles under its belt.
“I do believe that college hockey will have a growth path,” Robertson said. Several schools are looking into adding teams, from the University to Illinois to the Naval Academy. But forming regional alliances, crucial for travel as athletics departments tighten their belts, will be difficult, if not impossible. Travel to the Alaska schools and Alabama-Huntsville was a major reason those were the only teams left after last season — and Huntsville has since put its program on hold, as well.
Robertson will be the 10th president and commissioner of the USHL, the only top-tier juniors league in the U.S. He aims to increase the local and national profiles of its 16 teams and enhance partnerships with USA Hockey and the NHL, two organizations for which Robertson has worked.
The USHL sends dozens of players to the WCHA each year and boasts nearly 300 alumni that played for the NHL or NHL affiliates. It has teams in Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wisconsin.
Robertson will work with the WCHA through June and join the USHL on July 12.
“I’ve known and worked with Bill for 20 years and am confident in saying the USHL is in great hands with Bill taking over the roles of President and Commissioner,” his predecessor, Bill Garrity, said in a statement. “We had a lot of fantastic candidates for the position but feel Bill’s experience in the sport will help continue to grow the league’s pedigree as one of the best junior hockey leagues in the world. I have great respect for Bill as a person and leader and there is no one better to lead the USHL.”