Six weeks since being named commissioner of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, Don Lucia already has checked Job No. 1 off his to-do list: Finding an eighth member for the men’s hockey conference.
St. Thomas, the St. Paul-based school that’s making the transition from NCAA Division III to Division I, on Wednesday was announced as the eighth program to join the league, which includes seven schools that are leaving the WCHA to begin play in the 2021-22 season. The Tommies meshed well with the CCHA’s desire to add a program that fits geographically and brings a commitment to hockey.
So, does Lucia expect every decision he makes to be this seamless? Hardly.
“I’ve learned from coaching that you can be awfully smart one day, and the next day be not quite as bright,’’ the former Gophers men’s hockey coach said.
The heavy lifting begins for Lucia, St. Thomas athletic director Phil Esten and others involved in the new conference, with only a year to prepare for the inaugural season.
“It’s thrilling to be building something, and it’s even more thrilling to be a part of building something when there’s alignment,’’ St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan said.
Here are some questions that were addressed during Wednesday’s news conference and during interviews with coaches:
Eight is enough, right?
The CCHA, Lucia said, is quite content to be an eight-team conference, with the advantages in tournament play and travel partners each week.
“You never say never, but at the same time, eight is a great number,’’ he said. “Everybody can play on the same weekend, you have an eight-team playoff, four teams in the first round. … We have great number now at eight. With our footprint in the Midwest, it’s exactly what we wanted. We can sit with eight for a long time. If there’s a team out there that can make our league better and can add to the CCHA, certainly I would be open to it.’’
As for how many conference games CCHA teams will play, Lucia is exploring models of 24, 26 and 28 games. “Not everybody will be in agreement,’’ he said.
Also, because of the long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic, expect fewer nonconference games in which western teams fly east, and vice versa.
“You’re going to start to see more regional scheduling, which is a benefit for our league,’’ Lucia said, adding that he wants to make sure that CCHA teams in close proximity to each other play each other four times in the regular season if there’s not a 28-game league season.
How competitive will St. Thomas be?
That’s to be determined, though Esten was cautiously optimistic.
“I will say we’re entering this with our eyes wide open, that it’s a journey,’’ said Esten, whose programs are in the first year of a five-year transition to be full Division I members. “We certainly understand this is a building process for us. But I also believe that if we do this right, we can build a competitive program and be a value-added member in the league, one that’s aspiring to be among the very best in the country.’’
Tommies coach Jeff Boeser referenced the success of St. Cloud State and Minnesota State Mankato, former Division III programs who’ve built themselves into conference and national contenders. He aims to make the Tommies a factor among Minnesota’s six Division I men’s programs.
“How exciting would that be – starting some rivalries in the state?’’ he said. “It’s just a great day for college hockey.’’
Two of Boeser’s counterparts, Minnesota State’s Mike Hastings and Bemidji State’s Tom Serratore, see potential in St. Thomas.
“If there’s one word that comes to mind: They’re committed,’’ Hastings said. “And they’re committed a very high level.’’
Added Serratore: “There’s going to be challenges, there’s going to be bumps in the road. It takes time, but they’ve got so much going for them. They could get good awfully quick. We’re in a state where we have a lot of good hockey players.
“Once they get that rink, look out.’’
What about a rink?
For the time being, the Tommies will play in St. Thomas Ice Arena adjacent to St. Thomas Academy. It’s capacity is approximately 1,000, which would make it among the smallest in Division I men’s hockey. Esten pointed to possibly using a larger arena in the Twin Cities from time to time if needed, so a place like Ridder Arena on the University of Minnesota campus might be in play.
In the long term, look for St. Thomas to build an arena, a move that would mesh with the school’s ambitions to be competitive.
“We have started to think about what that future might look like – in very, very early stages,’’ said Esten, who played a key role in fundraising and planning for the construction of TCF Bank Stadium when he was an associate athletic director at Minnesota. “… Of course, the financing piece is the really important piece of that. We’re very early in that process, but it’s certainly something that’s on our minds.’’
Esten would love to find a donor like Penn State did in Terry and Kim Pegula, who donate more than $100 million to fund D-I hockey men’s and women’s programs and an arena for the Nittany Lions. The reality is more sources likely will be needed.
“We’ve got to sit down and determine how we’re going to finance,’’ Esten said. “… If there’s one or two [big-money donors] out there, that’s the easiest way to get to the finish line.’’