A marriage that seemed inevitable more than a year ago became reality Wednesday when the Central Collegiate Hockey Association announced that the University of St. Thomas would be the eighth member of the men’s hockey conference that begins play in the 2021-22 season.
It was a case of a new conference looking to fill an open spot with a regional program, and that regional program needing a home.
“The CCHA really is a perfect fit for St. Thomas,’’ Tommies athletic director Phil Esten said. “It offers opportunities for us to build regional rivalries in the state, new rivalries in Michigan and Ohio, and compete against, and hopefully compete with, some of the most historic brands in college hockey.’’
Added CCHA Commissioner Don Lucia: “From the beginning when I was hired a month ago, St. Thomas was my No. 1 target to add to be the eighth member of the CCHA.’’
Though St. Thomas received approval to move its 22 athletic teams from NCAA Division III to Division I only two weeks ago, the seeds of the men’s hockey move to the CCHA were planted in the spring of 2019.
In May 2019, the MIAC voted to force St. Thomas out of the Division III conference, effective after the 2020-21 academic year. A month later, seven members of the WCHA — Minnesota State Mankato, Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan — announced they were leaving to form a new, geographically focused and hockey-committed conference, leaving behind the financially strapped and far-flung programs of Alabama-Huntsville, Alaska and Alaska Anchorage.
With St. Thomas exploring a move of its teams to Division I, a match soon was apparent. “Ultimately, we all came to the conclusion that this would be a really good fit,’’ Esten said.
When Lucia, the former Gophers men’s hockey coach, was hired as CCHA commissioner, he quickly got in touch with Esten, with whom he had worked at Minnesota when Esten was an associate AD. About six weeks later, an invitation was extended, and the CCHA had its eighth team — and one based in St. Paul.
Coaches in the CCHA applauded the move.
“An eighth member was important, but not as important as the right eighth member ’’ Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings said. “St. Thomas is the right eighth member.”
Added Bemidji State’s Tom Serratore: “It’s great addition to our league and a great addition for Bemidji and Mankato, as well.”
For Tommies coach Jeff Boeser, the challenge begins: making the transition from D-III to D-I.
“We are so excited, the whole community at St. Thomas,” said Boeser, who has six MIAC titles in 10 seasons at St. Thomas. “It’s going to be a process, and we’re learning each day. … Let’s go to work.”
Part of Esten’s work will be addressing the Tommies’ arena situation. Their home is the 1,000-seat St. Thomas Ice Arena, adjacent to St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights. Esten mentioned using larger arenas in the area for specific games.
Lucia expressed confidence that St. Thomas will emerge as a strong member of the CCHA.
“The one thing I know about the University of St. Thomas: They don’t do anything unless they do it first-class,” he said.