Bruce McLeod already has worked through the stages of grieving for the end of the WCHA in its current configuration. In the run-up to this weekend’s WCHA Final Five, the league’s commissioner found himself — along with legions of fans, coaches and former players — sliding back to the fourth emotion on that scale.
“The adjective I’ve heard the most is that the whole thing is kind of sad,’’ said McLeod, in his 19th season as the WCHA’s commissioner. “I think it’s dawning on people that it’s never going to be the same, that this is a unique thing that can never be duplicated.’’
Since moving to Xcel Energy Center in 2001, the Final Five has become a signature event in college hockey, drawing an average of 76,963 fans each March. Next year, eight of the WCHA’s 12 teams will leave for other conferences. The five-game, six-team tournament that begins Thursday will be the last for the Gophers, St. Cloud State, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Colorado College, teams whose fiery rivalries and devoted fans helped build the Final Five into a puckhead’s paradise.
The tournament is not going away. The new-look WCHA will return to Xcel in 2015 and 2017; Saturday, it will announce the host city for the final rounds of its 2014 and 2016 playoffs. Beginning next season, the new Big Ten hockey conference will hold its playoff tournament at Xcel in even-numbered years.
There will be a new postseason tournament in the Twin Cities, too; the newly formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference will hold its 2014 playoffs at Target Center. But a record 12,178 fans already have bought ticket packages for the last stand of the Final Five as they know it, and nostalgia is running high among those who lament its passing.
“We, like everybody, wanted to make sure we were there for the last year,’’ said St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko, whose team is the No. 1 seed. “This tournament has evolved into such a special thing. You don’t really know until you get involved with it and get down there how your fans, players and parents truly embrace the weekend.
“It’s something that became a highlight. To know you’re not going to have that opportunity again, it is sad.’’
The Huskies will move to the NCHC next season, along with North Dakota, Colorado College, Minnesota Duluth, Denver and Nebraska Omaha. The Gophers and Badgers will begin play in the Big Ten. Minnesota State Mankato, which also is in this weekend’s Final Five, and Alaska Anchorage, Bemidji State and Michigan Tech will remain in the WCHA.
The league is planning to mark the end of this Final Five era with appearances by well-known players and coaches from the past, as well as a fan festival. Gophers fans are planning parties at downtown hotels and preparing for an annual three-day tailgate on West 7th Street, with some even brewing their own beer.
The tournament has had a foothold in St. Paul since 1988, when it moved to the old Civic Center after years of being held at campus sites. It instituted a five-team format in 1993 — expanding by one team — and began rotating between the Civic Center and Milwaukee’s Bradley Center. When it moved to Target Center in 1999 and 2000, it was at its low ebb, with average per-game attendance of 8,710 from 1998-2000.
The move to Xcel Energy Center changed everything. Fans and teams loved the new arena, which worked with the WCHA and the city to make the event special. The growing strength of the league made for classic games. The Final Five became a destination not just for followers of the participating teams, but for college hockey aficionados from all over the region.
North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol played in the tournament during its Civic Center days. Since it moved to Xcel, droves of North Dakotans have driven down annually, contributing to an atmosphere that many say is second only to the NCAA Frozen Four.
“It’s been very special for our players and coaches, and it’s made even more so by how passionate our fans have become about this tournament,’’ Hakstol said. “It’s difficult to put into words how much it means, how fun it is on a game night when you’ve got 8- to 10,000 of our fans wearing green and white up in the stands.’’
McLeod said the Final Five has striven to maintain a collegiate vibe, showcasing pep bands, cheerleaders and mascots. It often is collegial as well. McLeod has a favorite photo in his office of five fans at the tournament, all wearing jerseys of different teams, with their arms around each other.
Jack Larson, vice president and general manager of Xcel Energy Center, said many fans have purchased ticket packages every year. He hopes they will continue to do so as the new WCHA and the Big Ten strive for the same high standard. McLeod said the leagues are working in concert to sell their postseason tournaments, requiring that fans who want to keep their seats for one tournament also buy tickets for the other.
The Final Five reached its high-water mark in 2007, averaging 17,780 fans per game and drawing a record 19,463 — the largest crowd ever to attend an indoor college hockey game — to see the Gophers defeat North Dakota 3-2 in overtime in the championship game.
“We’re sad to see the current format being changed,’’ Larson said. “It has exceeded our expectations. But we’re looking forward to our new opportunities with the Big Ten and the WCHA.’’
Years ago, McLeod said, the tournament depended so heavily on Gophers fans that league officials fretted about what would happen if the Gophers did not make it. They found out the Final Five could stand on its own. While he can’t predict how it will weather the latest changes, he is hopeful it will endure.
“Our vision was always to make it a destination,’’ he said. “The NCHC, the Big Ten and us all agree that we’ll be OK. We’ll all get our slice of the pie. But none of us are going to have anything like this.’’