A closer look at the WCHA

Commissioner Bill Robertson discusses state of the conference

Northern Michigan University's Anthony Paskaruk, left, tries to steal the puck from Bemidji State's Phillip Marinaccio on Saturday, March 4, 2017, during Game 2 of their first-round, best-of-3 WCHA playoff series at the Sanford Center in Bemidji, Minn. (Bemidji Pioneer photo by Maggi Stivers)

MARQUETTE — The 2016-17 season was an interesting one for the WCHA.

That’s probably an understatement, though, as the league had some key issues to deal with at the start of the year, but in the end, came out looking more stable and showed it was eager to make changes.

In a Wednesday phone interview from Edina, Minnesota, Commissioner Bill Robertson discussed those problems as well as the progress the conference made in just one year.

“I think the WCHA is in a good place heading into the 2017-18 season and beyond with 10 strong and committed institutions,” he said. “There have been many positive developments within our conference with No. 1 being our new on-campus playoff format, and that was a rousing success in my opinion.

“We also introduced overtime and 3-on-3 (play), which made a lot of sense overall. We now have a conclusion to our games and our fan base loves that. So in that phase, I think we’re in a good position.

“Top to bottom, our programs continue to improve on and off the ice. We’ve had three teams on multiyear runs of 20-plus wins in a row (Minnesota State, Michigan Tech and Bowling Green State).

“Minnesota State and Bowling Green have also made important improvements to their facilities. Ferris State has been to a (NCAA) regional final two of the last four years (2014, 2016) and last year, Bemidji State had its best season of this decade.

“Alabama-Huntsville had improved its winning percentage each year and Lake Superior State had a couple of NHL signings out of its group of underclassmen. I think overall, we are doing very well and we’re on the road to success in the future.”

Robertson mentioned Northern Michigan University’s impressive turnaround during the second half of last season and the amazing shutout run of five straight games by goaltender Atte Tolvanen. He also praised the hire of head coach Grant Potulny, calling him “one of the top young coaching minds in college hockey.”

Playoff changes

The biggest change heading into last season was the playoff format, which ended the WCHA’s long tradition of playing their semifinals and finals at an off-campus venue such as the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, or the Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids.

If one were to watch the games on TV after the big conference shift in 2011, they’d see sparse crowds and a lack of enthusiasm in the building. Robertson said that attendance played a role in the issue, but the switch to on-campus sites came down to money.

“After talking to our administrators and coaches and looking at the significant amount of money that we were putting into having an off-campus, neutral-site venue, the cost was extraordinary,” he said. “We felt that because the action in the quarterfinals were so good in years past on campus, why don’t we try this one to see how this works?

“We’ve committed to it for three years and we may do it longer, but we need a track record of looking at the tournament itself. I think this first year was a great success and we can certainly improve further with the quarterfinal round and semifinal round with attendance.

“I think that the championship game (a double-overtime win for Michigan Tech over BGSU) that we have speaks for itself and I think it was one of the top collegiate sporting events of the year in the NCAA.”

Every game’s a win

The other big development was the changing of regular-season game format. Instead of just a 5-on-5 overtime, a 3-on-3 extra session and a shootout were added to help make games produce a winner and loser. Robertson said that came about after again discussions with the various schools and listening to fans.

The Big Ten has even followed the WCHA’s lead and will add an on-campus postseason format this season.

“We didn’t poll our fan base, but we did get a lot of questions during my first and second years (as commissioner) about having a conclusion to the games,” he said. “I could tell our fans wanted that very much and I think that it has been a success. Everywhere I go in the WCHA, people have commented how great it is and how much they like it.”

Issues in Alaska

Another big change that almost occurred was the elimination of the two Alaska programs (Anchorage and Fairbanks). Due to a massive state budget crisis, it was a real possibility that both teams’ time in the league would come to an end. However, the problem was taken care of and it appears as if both the Seawolves’ and Nanooks’ programs are safe for now.

“It was a very fluid situation and we are very happy where we are at from a year ago this time,” Robertson said. “The Alaska schools have both been given reassurances and intend to be viable Division I programs for the foreseeable future. Given the continued budget issues with the state, we will continue to monitor that issue.”

Possible expansion

With that problem seemingly past, the league is looking at the possibility of expansion. The WCHA had discussions with Arizona State on potentially joining the conference, but talks fell through. Even though it didn’t work out, Robertson saw it as a positive.

“I think we’re going to look at and continue to explore any opportunities to strengthen our 10 institutions, including expansion,” he said. “The highest priority we have is taking care of our 10 current members, though.

“I will say this though about expansion. The process with Arizona State was very positive in identifying expansion and where it is a benefit and other areas that could give us pause as well.

“We have decided that now is not the right time to consider conference affiliation, but we left the door open for future discussions should the situation merit it.”

Attendance struggles

Another issue that the WCHA is trying to resolve is attendance issues at some arenas. NMU was one school that had to deal with this problem the last few years and Robertson said the league is looking at solutions. One idea being considered is changing game days or times.

“I have been a proponent of asking schools to look at certain weekends to maybe move some of our games or maybe play at a later time,” he said. “If you play at like 4 or 5 o’clock on a Saturday, you can bring in a new audience and fans have an opportunity to have part of their evening back. It might also be good to play a Thursday-Friday series or a Saturday-Sunday.

“I’m not opposed to any of those. I am opposed to student-athletes missing a ton of class time. That is a priority and should come first and foremost.”

WCHA’s future

When asked about the future of the league and college hockey as a whole, Robertson has several ideas in mind, including expansion and a possible super-tournament.

“I think eventually we can get to a ‘super final,'” he said. “One where we can have all three of the western leagues (WCHA, Big Ten, NCHC) play their games over the course of a weekend in one building.

“I think that it would be a great way to celebrate college hockey and I think they can do the same in the East. It depends on working out the budgets. You could have three games in one day and that would be an automatic qualifier for all three leagues. It’s always been a dream of mine.

“As far as the league, I’m hopeful that over time, we can eventually add two additional programs, maybe two or more. We would then have divisions within the WCHA.

“Will that happen today? No. Are they things we are looking at in the future? Yes.

“We also know that we have the largest footprint (in the NCAA) and the demands are challenging with travel. We want to make that more manageable. We need to find a way in our geography to make (this) challenge less of a burden.

“Several schools also do not own their own arenas and they play off-campus. We will continue to explore potential new scheduling models and teams to divisions that can hopefully reduce the frequency of longer trips.”

All in all, Robertson that even though there may be a sentiment that the WCHA is not as important as it once was, it’s still viable and remains strong.

“I’ve inherited 10 schools that are committed to this league and are committed to wanting to win,” he said. “I think that we have a handful of teams that could compete this coming year for NCAA Tournament berths, and even though our nonconference record did not live up to what we wanted at the start of last year, I think we will get better.

“I think that we’re in a very good place.”

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.