One more go-around: Final year of WCHA bittersweet for men’s hockey program

When the University of Minnesota Duluth joined the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, the old DECC Arena was yet to be built, Brett Hull was about 15 years away from suiting up in a Bulldogs sweater and a man by the name of Raymond Darland served as the school’s provost. A member of one of college hockey’s most competitive conferences since 1965, the UMD men’s hockey team is set to depart the WCHA at season’s end, perhaps leaving behind nearly a half-century of memories, rivalries and traditions.

“The whole reason I chose UMD was to be in the WCHA,” said senior defenseman Drew Olson. “I’m just glad that I got to finish out the last year here in the WCHA.”

The Bulldogs will be moving to the newly formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference next season, joining Colorado College, Denver, Miami (Ohio), Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota, St. Cloud State and Western Michigan.

The WCHA’s presence at UMD isn’t completely evaporating, however. The conference will live on at UMD through the women’s hockey program, an inaugural member of the WCHA’s women’s division.

UMD’s 48th and final season as a member of the WCHA officially kicked off Oct. 26 against Wisconsin. The Bulldogs have won three WCHA regular-season championships, the last coming in 2003, and three playoff tournaments, the last coming in 2009, in the league’s illustrious history. UMD will have one final chance to add to those numbers this year.

The precise implications of the conference change are still unclear, but if one thing is for sure, it’s that it’s going to be a big change for the UMD hockey program.

“It’s bittersweet. I’ve only known one conference as a player and coach,” said UMD head coach Scott Sandelin, who played at North Dakota and began his coaching career there. “But at the same time, it’s exciting to start something new. The competitiveness of the new league will be tremendous, just like this league, so that’s not going to change.”

Sandelin said he hopes rivalries with teams like Bemidji State, Minnesota State-Mankato and Michigan Tech can live on as the teams part ways.

“Who knows, we might even go to Anchorage,” he said.

Plans are in the works for the five Division I teams in Minnesota – UMD, Minnesota, St. Cloud, Bemidji and Mankato – to take part in a new annual tournament, the Minnesota Cup, at the Xcel Energy Center, beginning in January 2014.

“I think it’s important to keep playing those teams for a number of reasons,” Sandelin said. “They’ve been in our league, we’ve played against them, they’re drivable sites for your fans to go to, and they’re good teams, so we’ll continue to try to do that.”

The decision by Penn State to add a hockey program, announced on Sept. 17, 2010, set off a chain reaction of events that led to the biggest conference shakeup in college hockey history.

The Big Ten Conference quickly announced that it would begin sponsoring men’s ice hockey in 2013. In addition to Penn State, the conference will include current WCHA teams Minnesota and Wisconsin, as well as Central Collegiate Hockey Association teams Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State.

The WCHA, meanwhile, will be made up largely of teams split from the WCHA and the CCHA. Alaska-Fairbanks, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan will join the WCHA.

“Obviously you never want to see a league go, but this last year we’re going to have a great time playing teams we don’t normally get to see,” said UMD senior Mike Seidel. “It’s going to be tough, but this last year we obviously want to go out on top.”


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