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Farewell to the WCHA

Ryan Stieg

The life expectancy of an American male is a little more than 75 years and the WCHA men’s hockey league almost reached that mark.

On July 1, what had already been a foregone conclusion finally happened as the WCHA announced that it will no longer exist as a men’s league after 70 seasons. It will still exist as a women’s league, though.

Ever since seven members of the conference, including Northern Michigan University, declared they were departing for the newly revived CCHA in July 2019, the WCHA has been barely hanging on.

All of us who love college hockey knew the plug would eventually be pulled, but that didn’t make it any less tragic when the news came out last week.

That’s because the WCHA has always pulled through, and for a majority of its existence, it was the strongest conference in the country. From 2000 to 2006, six out of the seven national champions were from the WCHA, and in 2005 all the teams in the Frozen Four came from the league. That’s an impressive feat.

The league didn’t just excel in the NCAA tournament, it also had the premier league tournament with the Final Five, and things really got big in the first decade of this century when the games moved to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota.

That’s when I truly started to fall in love with college hockey. Sure, I was aware of the sport before that and I could be considered a fan, but the Final Five is where my love blossomed. I had just started school at national powerhouse North Dakota, and in 2004 my dad and I decided that we should attend the Final Five for the first time. My brother and my two uncles tagged along, and it was a blast.

The championship between the then-Fighting Sioux and Minnesota was a sellout and even though we were cheering for the other team, it was still impressive to see the Golden Gophers’ fans erupt after goals and sing the fight song. I was completely hooked from that point on and so were other members of my family.

We attended the Final Five as a group every year for the rest of the decade and even a couple years after that. My mom joined in the fun at one point, as well as my aunts and cousins. Even my grandmother showed up one season and this is a woman who barely knew what hockey was.

My last trip to the tournament came in 2010, and that year my now-wife joined us. She was already a huge hockey fan and she was in awe of the atmosphere.

Even when I was in graduate school, my family still went to the Final Five until the big college hockey shakeup to start the 2013-14 season. Big Ten teams formed their own conference, so Minnesota and Wisconsin bolted from the WCHA. Then six other teams took off, including UND, to form the NCHC.

With the CCHA dissolving, the WCHA then turned into a makeshift conference full of teams that couldn’t get into the previously listed conferences, or didn’t fit in geographically in the other ones. That’s how the league turned from a majority Midwest conference to one that included Michigan schools like NMU, Michigan Tech, Lake Superior State and Ferris State, as well as two Minnesota schools, two Alaska schools, Bowling Green and Alabama-Huntsville. It definitely made the league unique and fun, but it kind of made most of us wonder if the league could remain at that size. Now eight years later, we have our answer.

During these past few seasons, the WCHA’s status in the college hockey world significantly dipped. Its last national champion was Minnesota-Duluth in 2011 and the Bulldogs are now in the NCHC.

Minnesota State-Mankato has pretty much dominated the conference during the regular season, winning five of the last eight MacNaughton Cups outright and sharing one with Tech. The Broadmoor Trophy, and now Jeff Sauer Trophy had a little more variety of winners, but once the WCHA teams would hit the NCAA Tournament, they’d falter.

Even Mankato didn’t get its first tournament win until last year and they were the conference’s only Frozen Four competitor since the big reshuffle. In case there was any doubt about the WCHA’s status, some questioned quite vocally on social media why the conference should have three schools make the NCAAs this season just finished.

The good thing for the league is those doubters of the league’s quality of play were quickly silenced when Bemidji State walloped Wisconsin in the first round and Mankato helped the league go out on a semi-good note by making the Frozen Four.

That didn’t make things less sad, though, concerning the league breakup. This was a proud league that did its best to improve its status and make things fun. It introduced 3-on-3 overtime and shootouts during the regular season and dumped one-game semifinals and finals at a neutral site in favor of a pair of best-of-3 semis and a one-game championship, all at campus sites.

When NMU started hosting playoff games again, the atmosphere at the Berry Events Center was electric, especially for the 2018 title game against Tech. I don’t know if that will ever be replicated, and even though the Wildcats came up short, I’m sure that feelings during that game will last in the minds of fans for years. I know they will for me.

So I raise a toast to you, WCHA. You were that friend that kept fighting till the end. Even when things looked bleak, you kept that heart monitor going. When seven schools said they were leaving, there was a part of you that believed maybe you could survive, but time eventually ran out on you.

You were a great league that provided lasting some incredible memories, not only us hockey writers, but the athletes, coaches and fans as well.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll see you again someday. If the CCHA can rise up from the dead like Lazarus, maybe you can as well. Until that time, I wish you farewell, good friend.

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

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