This weekend, the Gophers play their last regular-season series as members of the WCHA, facing Bemidji State at Sanford Center in Bemidji. Thursday, the Beavers--and Minnesota State, Mankato--got a look at the conference schedule for the newly reconfigured WCHA, and college hockey's newest league held a press conference in Minneapolis to show off its logo, web site and postseason tournament.
The WCHA will keep a 28-game schedule in 2013-14. The new lineup includes 10 teams: current members MSU Mankato, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech and Alaska-Anchorage, plus Alaska Fairbanks, Alabama-Huntsville, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan. The league will announce postseason tournament sites at this year's WCHA Final Five at Xcel Energy Center on March 21-23. The 2014 Final Five will be March 20-22.
The National Collegiate Hockey Conference unveiled a slick logo--a shield with a hockey stick and eight stars, representing the eight member schools--at Thursday's press conference at Minneapolis City Hall. The conference will hold its first postseason tournament March 21-22, 2014, at Target Center. There will be two semifinals, a championship game and a third-place game, and ticket packages already are on sale. The charter members of the NCHC are former WCHAers Colorado College, Denver, North Dakota, Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State and Nebraska Omaha, plus Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan of the CCHA.
The NCHC will have a booth at the Let's Play Hockey expo at St. Paul's RiverCentre during the boys' state high school hockey tournament this weekend. League staff will be there to talk up the conference and answer questions. The league also announced its Web address will be www.nchchockey.com
Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore said this week that he expects the new WCHA to be "a heck of a league,'' because it continues to have schools with strong hockey traditions. "These are good schools, and it's going to be good competition,'' he said. "At the end of the day, things aren't going to change a whole heck of a lot.
"You have to let it evolve. You have to build new rivalries within the league, just like Minnesota is going to have to do in the Big Ten. That takes time. But eventually, they're going to be great rivalries. There's going to be a time in the future when people are going to forget about the old WCHA. The new WCHA and the new Big Ten, that's going to be what people know.''
Next season, when the Gophers start play in the Big Ten, they will play one of their non-conference series at Bemidji State. Like Gophers coach Don Lucia, Serratore wants to continue playing all the in-state rivals after they go to separate leagues.
Lucia lauded the BSU program. "I don't think people understand what a great tradition Bemidji State has had over the years,'' he said, noting that the Beavers remain relatively anonymous because of their location. "(Former coach/athletic director) Bob Peters has one of the most successful records in the history of college hockey. They deserved to be a Division I member, and in the WCHA, we fought very hard for that to happen.
"It's great to see the program they have. If the WCHA wouldn't have taken them in, I'm not sure they would even have a program right now, which would have been sad when you look at the history and tradition they have.''
This weekend, Lucia will be focused on his own team's short-term prospects. The Gophers could finish anywhere from first to a tie for sixth in the WCHA standings. The team is healthy, he said, and they should be relatively fresh. They practiced on the small ice sheet at Ridder Arena this week, and their ice time was limited, so they held shorter sessions.
Several players said they will refrain from scoreboard-watching this weekend, no matter how tempting it will be to see what other teams are doing. "On Friday, our goal is to get home ice (for the first round of the WCHA playoffs), and we'll go from there,'' captain Zach Budish said. "We can't worry about other scores. If we take care of our business, we know we'll be at least a No. 2 seed in the WCHA playoffs. We'll take that.''