On St. Patrick’s Day in 2007, the WCHA might have reached its zenith.
The men’s hockey conference was riding high, with a string of five consecutive national championships, and was only two years removed from its tour de force of sending four teams to the NCAA Frozen Four.
A record crowd of 19,463 poured in, amid the revelers along St. Paul’s W. Seventh St., and packed Xcel Energy Center. There the fans saw the Gophers edge North Dakota 3-2 in overtime on Blake Wheeler’s lunging goal from his belly in the Final Five championship game.
The tournament drew an average of 17,780 for its five games, the most in its history. The seats were filled, as were the cash registers of nearby businesses.
Flash forward 13 years later, and my, how things have changed. The WCHA is scheduled to play its 69th men’s season in 2020-21. Chances are, there won’t be a 70th.
Alaska Anchorage has announced it will disband its hockey program after the upcoming season because of an ongoing financial crisis that certainly hasn’t been helped by the coronavirus pandemic. That news was the latest blow to the conference, which last year saw seven teams say they’re leaving following the 2020-21 season to start a new conference, which turned out to be the reincarnated CCHA.
The WCHA will lose eight of its 10 members after this season, leaving only Alaska (Fairbanks) and Alabama Huntsville. Alaska officials on Wednesday pledged their commitment to keeping the Fairbanks program going. Alabama Huntsville announced it was dropping hockey this spring, but a last-minute fundraising push gave the sport a reprieve for 2020-21. However, the Chargers’ future in the WCHA beyond this season is not certain.
Come fall of 2021, there’s a chance the WCHA men’s league consists of only the Alaska Nanooks.
Trying to hold things together is WCHA Commissioner Bill Robertson, who faces a quixotic task. Along with tending to the coming season – schedule models are being developed while the starting date of the season has yet to be determined -- he’s working to keep the conference alive. He’s recruiting existing independent teams (Arizona State and newcomer Long Island) and trying to persuade others (Lindenwood, Liberty, Simon Fraser) to start Division I programs. All this amid a pandemic that’s ravaged college athletic budgets.
Talk about trying to pull a rabbit out of your hat.
“It’s a monumental challenge,’’ said Robertson, a veteran sports executive who’s seen the ups and downs of the business during his time with the Wild, Timberwolves, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and Anaheim Angels.
The seeds of the WCHA’s demise started well before Robertson took over as commissioner in 2014. When Penn State decided in 2010 to move its club program to NCAA Division I status, the Nittany Lions needed a conference home. Geography suggested Penn State join the CCHA, with teams in Ohio and Michigan. Instead, the Big Ten created a hockey conference, siphoning off the Gophers and Wisconsin from the WCHA and Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State from the CCHA. That led to North Dakota, Minnesota Duluth, Colorado College, Denver, Miami (Ohio) and Nebraska Omaha breaking away from their conferences to form the NCHC, which later invited St. Cloud State and Western Michigan to join the super league.
The remaining four WCHA teams absorbed the CCHA leftovers when that league folded. What was missing for the WCHA starting in 2013-14 were the big crowds – and the resulting big revenue -- for the Final Five. The last Final Five with the Gophers, North Dakota, Wisconsin, et al as members drew an average of 17,459 per game to Xcel Center. A year later, the WCHA held a three-game conference tournament at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich. It drew an average of 3,721 per game in 2014, followed by 7,524 at Xcel in 2015 and 4,546 at Van Andel in 2016. The WCHA went to an on-campus one-game championship in 2017.
The Big Ten tried a neutral-site tournament that alternated between St. Paul and Detroit for four years but also experienced sparse crowds and moved to on-campus sites beginning in 2018. Among western conferences, only the NCHC, helped mightily by the North Dakota fan base, has a thriving neutral-site tournament. The NCHC Frozen Faceoff has drawn crowds of nearly 12,000 at Xcel Center.
For Robertson and the WCHA, a packed NHL arena for their tournament is a distant memory. Time is ticking on finding a way to save the conference.