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Brad E. Schlossman / Forum Communications Co. , Published October 03 2012

WCHA's glory days are coming to an end after this season

Grand Forks - In 1951, North Dakota, Denver and Colorado College were three of seven teams that formed a college hockey conference that would go on to be the most powerful and profitable league in the country.

The league eventually grew to 12 teams, boasted the best arenas in the nation and routinely won national championships.

But the league as we know it – the only league UND has ever been a member of – will die after the 2012-13 season.

Minnesota and Wisconsin are bolting for the startup Big Ten Hockey Conference.

UND, Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha and St. Cloud State are leaving to start the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

And while the WCHA will continue to operate a nine-team league (it added five teams from the soon-to-be-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association), Michigan Tech will be the only charter member left (and even Tech left the league for a few years at one point).

So, how did this all happen to the league that was once at the peak of college hockey? It all started a few years ago with a monetary pledge to one school to add men’s hockey.

The beginning of the end

When Terry Pegula pledged $88 million for the construction of a new arena and the start of a Division I men’s hockey program at Penn State, motions were put in place for a vast change in the landscape of college hockey.

With Penn State, there would be six Big Ten teams playing Division I college hockey – enough for the conference to sponsor the sport.

And despite initial objections from the University of Minnesota, the league became a reality, fracturing the WCHA and CCHA. The CCHA was immediately put on shaky ground, and Notre Dame and Miami were among league members looking to find a more stable home.

Some WCHA teams, looking to keep their conference an attractive place for recruits to play and upset with the league’s current management, started exploring the idea of forming a new conference.

In July 2011, that became a reality.

UND, Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth and Nebraska-Omaha decided to leave the WCHA and pick up Miami from the CCHA to create the NCHC. A month later, the league added St. Cloud State and Western Michigan to get to eight teams.

Just like that, the once-powerful conference was stripped of its core teams.

There were many hard feelings in the wake of the announcement.

“It’s a really sneaky back-door deal,” Anchorage athletic director Steve Cobb told the Anchorage Daily News.

WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod called it, “a tough day.”

UND’s brass expressed some sadness in leaving the league, but also excitement in what’s to come.

“Growing up in Minnesota, the WCHA was the only league in college hockey I watched,” UND senior Joe Gleason said. “It was the only league I wanted to play in. The fact that North Dakota played in the WCHA was a top factor in me choosing to come to North Dakota. It’s a pretty sad thing that the league is breaking up. I’m really glad I’ve been a part of it. It’s going to be a tough transition into a new league.”

Finishing it off strong

UND has closed out its time in the WCHA as one of the top members.

UND has won the MacNaughton Cup (WCHA regular-season champs), Broadmoor Trophy (WCHA postseason champs) or made a trip to the NCAA Frozen Four in each of the last nine years.

Team members say they want to leave the league on a high note.

“I think that’s a really important thing,” Gleason said. “We really want to represent the league well and we kind of want that last chance at holding the crown, the MacNaughton or the Broadmoor. We want to be the last one to win those trophies. That would be a cool accomplishment.”


Schlossman writes for the Grand Forks Herald