Matt Wellens column: NCHC made right choice in spurning Minnesota State, fledgling Arizona State

Cancel those plans Bulldogs fans for regular trips to Tempe, Ariz., and forget about regular jaunts south to Mankato, too. The NCHC announced Wednesday it is pausing any plans for expansion and refunding Arizona State and Minnesota State-Mankato ...

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Cancel those plans Bulldogs fans for regular trips to Tempe, Ariz., and forget about regular jaunts south to Mankato, too.

The NCHC announced Wednesday it is pausing any plans for expansion and refunding Arizona State and Minnesota State-Mankato - the only two teams to formally apply this summer - most of the $20,000 each sent to join the league.

The three-year-old home to Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State, North Dakota, Nebraska-Omaha, Colorado College, Denver, Western Michigan and Miami will remain an eight-team league for now.

And that’s a very good thing, trust me.

The NCHC has no reason to expand this summer. It’s not on the verge of losing any members in the near future (the league’s exit fee is anywhere from $1-1.5 million, according to sources); it is flourishing financially with budget surpluses in each of the first three seasons; and, most importantly, the NCHC is arguably the most competitive league in college men’s hockey with 13 NCAA tournament bids, five Frozen Four appearances and a national championship in its first three seasons.


Only Hockey East can claim similar success in the past three years with 14 NCAA bids, four Frozen Four participants and one national title.

As one athletic director told me back in April when false reports were flying that Arizona State’s membership in the NCHC was imminent, “Why mess with a good thing?”

Well, if you could add a school that can bolster the bottom line and consistently improve teams’ Pairwise ranking, why not take a deeper look?

Minnesota State sure fit that bill with its proximity to most of the league and to the NCHC Frozen Faceoff in Minneapolis. The Mavs also have been one of the most competitive teams in the country as of late with four straight seasons of 20-plus wins and trips to the NCAA tournament in three of the last four seasons.

But the Sun Devils? They can’t hold a trident to the Mavericks, or anyone else in the NCHC for that matter.

Arizona State, one of the largest public universities in the country, is a big-name brand in college sports. But in college hockey, it's meaningless to be an FBS school in a Power Five conference like the Pac-12 that features its own TV network. Just ask the Big Ten and their four NCAA tourney bids from the last three seasons.

The Sun Devils are nowhere close to the level of the new kids on the block before them: Penn State. The Nittany Lions stormed onto the scene in 2013 with an established, veteran NCAA Division I coach in Guy Gadowsky and a brand spankin’ new arena thanks to a donation of more than $100 million.

The Sun Devils, on the other hand, are still led by club program coach Greg Powers and playing in the club team’s 800-seat home of Oceanside Arena and living off a donation of just $32 million.


The truth is, Arizona State is closer in stature to college hockey’s last independent wanderer, Alabama-Huntsville, that its most recent addition. Though even the Chargers have a legit facility to play in.

To join the likes of the NCHC, Arizona State needs to prove itself as a program and show it won’t drag down the league’s bottom line with flights to Tempe. It needs to prove it can be competitive, and not potentially cost the NCHC’s elite teams bids to the NCAA tournament like Huntsville is doing in the WCHA.

And none of that will happen until the Sun Devils find a suitable rink to call home. Playing part-time at the Arizona Coyotes’ Gila River Arena isn’t good enough. Not deeming the second game of a two-game series with Harvard, as well as series against Colgate and RPI as “significant home games” won’t cut it either.

If Arizona State wants to someday play in the NCHC, it needs to accept the WCHA’s invitation now and start paying its dues. The Sun Devils need to get some wins, drum up more support and get that new arena on their own rather than riding the controversial coattails of the Coyotes.

Then they can come back to the members of the NCHC, which by then should be good and ready after a couple more harsh winters to pack their swim trunks, sunscreen and golf clubs for regular trips to Tempe ... and Mankato, too.

Related Topics: BULLDOG SPORTS
Co-host of the Bulldog Insider Podcast and college hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune and The Rink Live covering the Minnesota Duluth men's and women's hockey programs.
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