Penn State's decision to add a varsity program prompted the creation of a new league to start in 2013-14.
The Gophers were one of the seven founding members of the WCHA in 1951-52.
Now they will leave the WCHA to become one of the six building blocks for another men's hockey conference, the Big Ten, starting with the 2013-14 season.
The Gophers will join Wisconsin of the WCHA; Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association; and Penn State, which is starting a varsity hockey program in 2012-13. Big Ten rules require a minimum of six teams in a sport before they can play for a conference championship, so the Nittany Lions are the catalyst of the move.
Those six Big Ten schools announced Monday that they are recommending the conference establish men's hockey as an official sport for the 2013-14 season and hold a tournament in March of 2014 at a site to be determined. The Big Ten council of presidents and chancellors will vote on the proposal in June, but that appears to be a formality.
Gophers coach Don Lucia said he's looking forward to the Big Ten conference. "Our rivalry with Wisconsin is well-documented," he said, "and it will be nice to play Michigan and Michigan State more than once a year. It will also be exciting to create new rivalries with Ohio State and Penn State."
Gophers athletic director Joel Maturi acknowledged it will be difficult leaving the WCHA, a conference in which the Gophers won 12 regular-season titles and 14 playoff titles.
"There are some mixed emotions for us," Maturi said, "as Minnesota is an original and proud member of the WCHA."
Both Lucia and Maturi said the Gophers will continue to play traditional WCHA rivals in nonconference games. The WCHA has four other teams in the state: Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota State Mankato, St. Cloud State and first-year member Bemidji State. And arguably the Gophers' biggest rivalry is with North Dakota, which has won 15 WCHA regular-season titles and nine playoff crowns.
The six hockey teams in the new Big Ten will play a 20-game conference schedule -- two games at home, two away against five opponents. That means the Gophers can schedule up to 14 nonconference games.
WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod said the conference has a tentative verbal agreement on an interlocking schedule with the Gophers and Wisconsin when they switch conferences. It calls for them to play all 10 remaining WCHA teams on a rotating schedule.
The move has its critics, including Nebraska Omaha coach Dean Blais, a University of Minnesota alum who also coached North Dakota for 10 seasons. Blais questioned if the move would help Minnesota and Wisconsin and said he "doesn't see any positive" for the WCHA with the departures.
"We've known it's coming, but we have to look at whether it's good for hockey in general," Blais told the Associated Press. "Is it a money-driven thing? Are you going to tell me Iowa is going to add hockey because it's a Big Ten sport now? Come on up, show me the money."
There are uncertainties.
"At this point, nobody knows how all of this will shake out," said Paul Kelly, executive director of College Hockey, Inc., the marketing arm of the sport.
Some high-profile teams such as Notre Dame and Miami (Ohio) of the CCHA, and North Dakota and Denver of the WCHA could break off with other teams and form a "superconference."
McLeod said the WCHA will be fine at 10 teams. "The issue for us is we need to stick together," he said. "I hope things don't start to happen. This is hard enough on college hockey."
Kelly called the Big Ten hockey conference, on its own merits, a step forward for the sport.
"When a prestigious institution like Penn State and other large schools combine to form a conference," Kelly said, "it will get a lot of media attention, better TV exposure, and all of that is a positive for the sport. It likely will prompt other Big Ten schools to look at [hockey] like Indiana, Illinois and Northwestern."
The Big Ten Network will be the TV home of Big Ten hockey.
Penn State is forming a women's team, too, but the Gophers women will stay in the WCHA with Wisconsin and Ohio State. Michigan and Michigan State do not have women's programs.
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