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Brad E. Schlossman / Forum News Service, Published March 20 2013

UND set to bid farewell to Final Five

GRAND FORKS – The NCAA tournament can be a letdown.

Minnesota coach Don Lucia admitted as much this week.

“You’re playing in front of 3,000 or 4,000 people somewhere,” the 20-year Western Collegiate Hockey Association veteran said.

That won’t be the case this weekend.

The WCHA Final Five will be held one final time at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul this weekend. It gets started with two quarterfinal games today – Minnesota State-Mankato vs. Wisconsin at 2 p.m. and North Dakota vs. Colorado College at 7 p.m.

The winners will play St. Cloud State and Minnesota on Friday.

League commissioner Bruce McLeod said the event is on pace to set a record in ticket sales with fans coming out in droves to enjoy a weekend that has become one of college hockey’s greatest spectacles.

“It’s a destination weekend, whether your team is in it or not,” Lucia said. “You want to be part of it.”

Next season, the event will be no more.

Minnesota and Wisconsin are moving to the Big Ten, which will be played in St. Paul next season, while North Dakota, St. Cloud State, Colorado College, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska Omaha and Denver all move to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, which will play its conference tournament in Minneapolis’ Target Center.

The WCHA hasn’t announced where its postseason tournament will be held yet.

“There is a little sense of sadness,” Colorado College coach Scott Owens said. “I’ve been a part of the WCHA for roughly 23 years and I grew up in Madison around it. It is sad in a lot of ways. But I’m so much happier that we are in (the Final Five) rather than sitting in the stands taking it in. I’m glad we can bring our club and be a part of it. We want to be there as long as we possibly can be.”

Originally held at the St. Paul Civic Center, the WCHA playoffs eventually moved to a rotation in the 1990s with Milwaukee and Minneapolis also serving as hosts. Once the Xcel Energy Center opened in 2000, the Final Five went to a new level.

Attendance levels skyrocketed. So did profits for the league and each school.

“We’ve benefitted greatly from the league and from this tournament,”

St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko said. “You don’t know until you get involved and get down here. Fans, players and parents truly embrace the weekend. To know we’re not going to have the opportunity again, it is sad. We wanted to make sure we were there for the last year.”

UND coach Dave Hakstol has led his team to the Final Five in all nine years as head coach, winning it four times and finishing runner-up once. UND has won it the last three years.

“Maybe more special for us is how passionate our fans have become about this tournament,” Hakstol said. “It’s difficult to describe how much it means and how fun it is to be walking up and down the streets of St. Paul and seeing all the green, and walking into the building and seeing 8,000 to 10,000 of our fans making it special.”

The highest-attended Final Five was 2007. It featured North Dakota, Minnesota, St. Cloud State and Wisconsin in the semifinals. That same lineup is possible this weekend, leading organizers to believe it will be the most profitable of all.

“I think the games will be as great as you’re going to see from here on out anywhere,” Lucia said. “You’re going to see great hockey. It’s going to be a great atmosphere this weekend.”

Schlossman writes for the Grand Forks Herald