Patrick Reusse has been covering sports in the Twin Cities since 1968. He has been a Star Tribune sports columnist since 1988. His sportswriting credo is twofold: 1. God will provide an angle; 2. The smaller the ball, the better the writing.


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MSU Mankato heads into unknown of new WCHA

Posted by: Patrick Reusse Updated: October 2, 2013 - 12:19 PM

The Western Collegiate Hockey Association lost eight of its 12 members after last season: Minnesota and Wisconsin went to the Big Ten, and St. Cloud State, Minnesota Duluth, North Dakota, Colorado College, Denver and Nebraska Omaha wound up in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

The four remaining WCHA schools were Minnesota State Mankato, Bemidji State, Alaska Anchorage and Michigan Tech. They have been joined by five remnants from the disbanded CCHA: Bowling Green, Ferris State, Northern Michigan, Lake Superior State and Alaska (Fairbanks).

And in an act of kindness, the WCHA members voted to accept the orphan from Dixie, Alabama Huntsville, in order to save that endangered program.

The new WCHA is going to be located for the most part in very small markets compared to the Big Ten and the NCHC, the other conferences in what the college hockey world always has referred to as "the West.'' There are skeptics that all 10 of these programs will be able to sustain themselves with the huge travel requirements, lack of glamour opponents and the small corporate base for support.

MSU Mankato's final season in the traditional WCHA was one of its best. The Mavericks knocked off Nebraska Omaha in a first-round playoff series and wound up getting their second-ever NCAA tournament berth.

Miami (Ohio) eliminated the Mavericks 4-0 in the first round, putting Mankato's final record at 24-14-3. Mike Hastings, Mankato's first-year coach and a former assistant at Minnesota and Nebraska Omaha, was voted as the WCHA Coach of the Year.

The Bemidji Pioneer and the Mankato Free Press both conducted preseason polls for the WCHA -- the Pioneer with media members and the Free Press with coaches. The results were released last week, with MSU Mankato topping both.

The Mavericks were followed by Ferris State, Alaska, Bowling Green, Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan, Lake Superior, Bemidji State, Anchorage and Huntsville in the media poll. The Mavericks were followed by Ferris State, Michigan Tech, Bowling Green, Alaska, Northern Michigan, Bemidji State, Lake Superior, Anchorage and Huntsville in the coaches poll.

It appears that all parties in the radically new WCHA like MSU Mankato and Ferris State to fight it out for the title, and Anchorage and Huntsville to fight it out for ninth place, and there's much more uncertainty in the middle as many strangers start to compete.

MSU Mankato lobbied hard to get a berth in the new NCHC. St. Cloud State, a rival committed to significant improvements at its arena, got a slot when Notre Dame chose to go with Hockey East. The Mavericks were left to try to make it with a home schedule that doesn't include visits to Mankato from attractions such as Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin ... not even St. Cloud or Minnesota Duluth.

The Mavericks do have a series with the Gophers in mid-November, but both games will be played at Mariucci Arena. Mankato also will play in the four-team, in-state event in St. Paul on Jan. 24-25, playing UMD in the first game and either St. Cloud or the Gophers in the second.

It's a season when good things are expected from the Mavericks, but also with a home schedule that starts with Lethbridge from Canada on Sunday (5 p.m.), and has series against UConn, Bowling Green, Anchorage, Northern Michigan, Ferris State, Bemidji State, Huntsville and Michigan Tech.

There doesn't seem to be much there to get a Mankato hockey fan's blood boiling, at least for now, early in the process of creating rivalries.

I sent this inquiry to an MSU Mankato employee who attends every Mavericks' hockey game last week, when those preseason polls came out predicting a McNaughton Cup as the WCHA champion for his team:

"Are people excited for this chance for MSU Mankato to be a conference power, or are they depressed about the changes in the hockey landscape ... no Gophers as a given on the schedule, being left behind by St. Cloud, Duluth for a new league that's going to be the best in college hockey?''

This was my Mankato guy's response:

"To those people who are familiar with our program, my sense is that there's genuine excitement. We're a program ascending with a couple of high-profile players in Matt Leitner and Stephon Williams. We're coming off a year in which we set a school record for wins during our Division I era. We went to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 10 years.

"Ferris State is coming into the league after making a Frozen Four appearance last season. Bowling Green, Northern Michigan and Lake Superior State are programs joining the WCHA that have national championships on their resumes.

"The casual fan will see that Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota are not coming to Mankato and that our home schedule looks different.

"As I said, we appear to be a program on the rise. Hopefully, we can continue to be successful -- something we haven't been able to do since joining the D-I ranks in 1995-96. We've only had one occurrence of a winning season followed by another winning season.

"We feel we're better positioned now [in the new WCHA] to win games, win conference championships and make NCAA appearances.''


 

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