To say Bill Robertson has had an eventful 10 months would be an understatement. The commissioner of the WCHA men’s league has experienced these developments:
* Seven of the 10 teams in his conference announced in late June that they’re leaving following the 2020-21 season to form their own conference, leaving the WCHA with only the far-flung outposts in Alabama Huntsville, Alaska and Alaska Anchorage.
* At least one of the two Alaska programs seemingly were on the chopping block amid state budget cuts late last summer, only to receive a reprieve before the season started.
* The WCHA’s Minnesota State Mankato, with a talented, veteran roster, ascended to the nation’s No. 1 ranking in the season’s first half, on the strength of a 3-0-1 record against national powers North Dakota and Minnesota Duluth. The Mavericks had two first-team All-America selection, and their 31 victories led Division I hockey.
* Bemidji State (22-10-5) surged into the nation’s top 10 and appeared poised to join Minnesota State (31-5-2) as NCAA tournament teams from the WCHA. In addition, Bowling Green and Michigan Tech each won 21 games and advanced to the WCHA tournament semifinals.
* Then on March 12, everything changed with the WCHA canceling the remainder of its tournament, and the NCAA announcing all championships were called off through the spring season because of the coronavirus pandemic. No potential NCAA tournament breakthrough for the Mavericks, no NCAA trip for the Beavers and an empty feeling for the WCHA commissioner.
“The hardest piece for me is we had a legitimate chance to get three teams into the NCAA tournament, and we really had a strong opportunity to send somebody to Detroit for the Frozen Four,’’ Robertson said. “… I weighed on my mind that we shut it down. I felt bad, but I knew that was the right decision for the safety of everyone.
“As I look back on it, it was one of the most challenging days of my professional career,’’ added Robertson, who’s had front-office roles with the Wild, Timberwolves and Anaheim Mighty Ducks, “but also one of the hardest if not hardest decisions I had to make as a sports executive.’’
Losing out on the conference semifinals and title game was a double whammy for the WCHA, which relies on those games to fill league’s coffers. “They’re our biggest revenue providers,’’ Robertson said. “Working through our budgets and forecasting what we can and can’t do, it becomes very complex.’’
As for the immediate future for the WCHA, Robertson is preparing for next week’s league meetings, although he won’t be in Naples, Fla., as a precursor to the since-canceled American Hockey Coaches Association convention, but rather a variety of outposts and via video call.
“It’s a different feel when you’re not with people in person,’’ he said. “It’s a little more challenging to read the room and get more dialogue going on a Zoom call.’’
He continues to seek teams to join the WCHA, once the seven outgoing programs leave for the new CCHA in 2021-22.
For the coming season, the uncertainty means preparing a variety of schedules, depending on when the puck is dropped. Robertson doesn’t want to spend too much effort on that and isn’t giving up on the season starting on time in early October.
“I really believe we’re going to be playing in the fall,’’ he said. “What scenario, whether it’s with fans or not, I don’t know.’’