There were once seven “western’’ colleges with major hockey programs: Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech, North Dakota, Denver and Colorado College. In 1951, those schools formed the Midwest Collegiate Hockey League, and then changed the name to the Western Intercollegiate Hockey League.
The league was disbanded after the 1958 season, in a feud over the use of players from major junior hockey in Canada. The main antagonists were Denver’s Murray Armstrong, who had built a powerhouse with those Canadians, and the Gophers’ John Mariucci.
The league was reformed as the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in 1959, even though Mariucci refused to have Denver on his regular-season schedule. The Gophers didn’t schedule Denver from the winter of 1960-61 until a series in 1972, when Ken Yackel was the interim coach.
Minnesota Duluth had become the WCHA’s eighth team in 1966 and Wisconsin the ninth in 1969. The biggest shakeup came in 1981, when Michigan and Michigan State — always strong rivals for the Gophers — left for a new, more regionalized Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
Now, Michigan and Michigan State are back with the Gophers in a six-team Big Ten, the CCHA has disappeared, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference [NCHC] has appeared, and the WCHA is unrecognizable.
So, how’s it going, Coach?
“It’s too early to say … for us, for the NCHC, and for Big Ten hockey,’’ said Mike Hastings, the coach at Minnesota State Mankato. “We haven’t had a lot of home games, and we’ve had some of the ‘lighter’ attractions, so I don’t have a real read on how our fans are reacting.
“I have heard that our advance sale for the Ferris State series is strong, and that’s good news.’’
Mike Hastings was in his first season at Minnesota State in 2012-13. The Mavericks were a surprise success and he was voted Coach of the Year. And then the college hockey scene dived into the great unfamiliar, and Hastings and the Mavericks found themselves going from feel-good underdogs to preseason WCHA favorites.
“To handle the expectations, we had to make a step forward from last season, and we weren’t really doing that,’’ Hastings said. “We decided to have some practices like it was preseason, took things down to the basement and build it back up.’’
The Division I college hockey schedule almost dictates that approach. The games start in early October and then there’s an NCAA-mandated two-week break in December.
Hastings agreed with this comparison: A D-I hockey season is roughly equivalent of the first-half, second-half season splits you see in minor league baseball.
And the “second half’’ has started in unconventional style for MSU Mankato. The new, 10-team WCHA includes both Alaska (Fairbanks) and Alaska Anchorage, and in this first season, the Mavericks were scheduled to be on the road against both.
Hastings and his troops left for Alaska on Thursday of last week, flew to Anchorage and then Fairbanks, split a two-game series with the Nanooks last weekend, stayed overnight and then took a 6½-hour bus ride back to Anchorage. The Mavericks played the Seawolves on Friday night and will complete the series on Saturday, and then head back to Minnesota … 11 days from departure to a return to Mankato.
“We didn’t take the bus from Fairbanks to Anchorage on Sunday to save a few bucks,’’ Hastings said. “It was more to burn some time and let the players experience more of Alaska. We got to see moose along the way, saw a herd of caribou.
“Johnny McInnis, our player from Boston, couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He kept saying, ‘This isn’t real.’ ”
Zach Stepan, a freshman forward from Hastings, had the most interesting journey to Alaska. He was playing with the U.S. team in the World Junior Championships in Sweden. The Yanks lost to Russia in the quarterfinals on Thursday of last week. He wound up back in the States, was connected to Seattle, to Anchorage and then to Fairbanks, arriving at 11:30 p.m. Friday.
The Mavericks had lost that night 4-2. Stepan was in the lineup Saturday and scored the first goal in a 6-4 victory.
Minnesota State went into this weekend in second place in the WCHA at 10-4, but well behind unbeaten Ferris State (10-0-2) in the standings.
“This is unknown territory for all of us,’’ Hastings. “I can’t say if being on the road like this and the long travel take something out of players, and or if it’s going to set us up for a nice run. We’ll find out.’’
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500.