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Dave Campbell / Associated Press, Published March 19 2013

WCHA tournament will have very different feel next year

Minneapolis - The last few months of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s traditional look have been as tense and strong as ever. Merely four points in the standings separated first and sixth place when the regular season ended.

Perhaps the six teams still alive in the conference playoffs can find a way to top that this weekend. After this year’s WCHA tournament, the league and the landscape of the sport will never be the same.

Minnesota State-Mankato, Wisconsin, Colorado College, North Dakota, Minnesota and St. Cloud State are left in the bracket, with five games to determine the Broadmoor Trophy winner before eight of the league’s current 12 teams bolt for other conferences.

The WCHA will play on, but many of the storied rivalries will be gone.

“To know that we’re not going to have that opportunity again, it is sad,” St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko said. “Those conversations are for other days, but it is a sad time. We, like everybody, wanted to make sure we were there the last year.”

Motzko’s Huskies, fittingly, won their first MacNaughton Cup, given to the regular-season champions. They shared it with Minnesota. And while the Gophers are committed to playing St. Cloud State and the other schools in their state on a regular basis once they join the Big Ten, they’ll never again be conference foes playing four or more times annually. Even St. Cloud State will lose the rivalry with Minnesota State-Mankato, which is a 2½-hour drive away.

So while the teams have bigger goals to chase with the NCAA tournament looming ahead, there’ll be more pride than usual at stake on the ice at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, the site of the “Final Five” event since the arena opened 12 years ago. Even if the principals participating are reluctant to acknowledge as much.

“Everybody’s focusing on trying to keep our young men and our programs in the now,” Minnesota State-Mankato coach Mike Hastings said, adding: “We just want to have the opportunity to put our jerseys over our shoulders for another week.”

The Mavericks likely will, regardless of how they fare against Wisconsin in the quarterfinals on Thursday. After winning their first-round WCHA playoff series to reach the Final Five for the first time in 10 years, they’re on secure footing for an at-large spot in the NCAA tournament.

Next season, their chance to get an at-large bid will grow a little smaller.

Minnesota State-Mankato was left behind in the WCHA with Bemidji State, Alaska Anchorage and Michigan Tech. They’ll welcome Northern Michigan, Lake Superior State, Ferris State, Alaska-Fairbanks and Bowling Green from the dissolving Central Collegiate Hockey Association, as well as independent Alabama-Huntsville. So much for the WCHA’s first initial. Only three of the 10 teams will be west of the Mississippi River, and fans aren’t likely to take many road trips to Alaska, Alabama or Ohio.

“I think it’s just a money-making thing, which I don’t agree with,” said NHL star forward Zach Parise, who played in college for North Dakota. “I think you’re really taking away some of the best rivalries in college hockey by doing that. I just think it’s a bad idea.”