WCHA puts UAA and UAF in playoff pairing

Alaska hockey teams will clash annually in first round of playoffs -- unless one of them wins regular season.

Anchorage Daily NewsJune 16, 2012 

The retooled Western Collegiate Hockey Association debuting in 2013-14 will have UAA and rival UAF annually clash in a first-round playoff series and, with only one caveat, that will happen regardless of where those teams finish in the regular-season standings.

UAA athletic director Steve Cobb said the only scenario that would nix a Seawolves-Nanooks pairing in the first round is if either win the MacNaughton Cup as regular-season league champions and thus earn a first-round bye.

The unusual playoff format for the Alaska schools, a cost-saving measure approved by an 8-1 vote during league meetings in Detroit last week, did not receive a stick salute from Cobb, who said he cast the only dissenting vote.

"I think it is embarrassing, and I think it is bad for college hockey and bad for our league,'' Cobb said. "Don't get me wrong, we love playing Fairbanks. But the playoffs are supposed to be an earned deal. You don't pick your opponent.''

Having UAA travel to UAF for a best-of-3, first-round series, or vice versa, would save the new league considerable money compared to either Alaska team traveling to the Lower 48 or having an opponent, or two, travel to Alaska.

Representatives from the nine schools that will comprise the revamped WCHA last week agreed on several pivotal issues including playoff format and number of regular-season league games.

In the new WCHA, UAA and UAF will meet four times in the regular season and then, unless either wins the league, at least twice in the first round, Cobb said.

Playing UAF is always special, Cobb said, but a predetermined playoff meeting could easily be unfair to those teams and to other league members.

UAA and UAF could, for instance, finish second and third in the league and still meet in the playoffs even though a traditional format in a nine-team league with a first-round bye for the champion would have the second seed entertaining the ninth seed. Likewise, both schools could finish at the bottom of the standings and meet in the playoffs, thus leaving two high seeds without the advantage of hosting a presumably weak opponent.

"There's something to like with (a UAA-UAF series in the first round),'' Cobb said. "We're playing for who goes home and who moves on. It's a rivalry.

"(But) it violates the principles of fair play in my mind. I don't want anything we didn't earn and I do want what we earned.''

The 61-year-old WCHA was torn apart and reassembled after last year's announcements that several current members in 2013-14 will start playing in either of two new Division I leagues, the Big Ten or the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

That development also instigated the demise of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, the league in which UAF currently plays, after the 2012-13 season.

The WCHA in 2013-14 will lose eight of its current members. Wisconsin and Minnesota will move to the Big Ten. Headed to the NCHC are current WCHA members Denver, Colorado College, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota and St. Cloud State.

In 2013-14, when the WCHA drops to nine members from the current 12, the league will consist of UAA, UAF, Bemidji State, Minnesota State-Mankato, Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan, defending national champion Ferris State, Bowling Green and Lake Superior State.

One of the realities in the retooled WCHA is the league will have much less revenue. The eight teams leaving boasted the eight highest attendance averages on the circuit last season, making those teams the league's top eight revenue producers.

"Many things are going to be budget decisions instead of hockey decisions, at least initially,'' Cobb said.

Hence, a predetermined UAA-UAF first-round series.

The WCHA last week agreed on a playoff format beginning in 2013-14, Cobb said. The regular-season league champion will receive a first-round bye and the other eight members will play best-of-3, first-round series at campus/home sites.

Cobb said the league will play its Final Five at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., in 2015 -- that's been the site of the Final Five for years -- but has yet to determine a Final Five site for 2014. The Big Ten has booked the Xcel for its tournaments in 2014 and 2016.

Cobb said the WCHA has looked at Green Bay, Wis., Minneapolis and Duluth, as well as Toledo, Ohio, and Grand Rapids, Mich., as potential 2014 neutral sites, but has been unable to secure a site. If that shortcoming persists, Cobb said, the MacNaughton champion likely would play host to the Final Five at its home rink.

The WCHA last week also agreed to continue playing an unbalanced 28-game league schedule in 2013-14. That means UAA would play four games per season against six opponents -- home-and-home series -- and two games per season against two opponents, Cobb said.

That leaves UAA with six nonconference games, the same number it currently has in the NCAA's 34-game regular-season limit. Thus, UAA will continue to open the season with its Kendall Hockey Classic and continue to play the second weekend of the season at UAF's Brice Alaska Goal Rush tournament.

The Seawolves beginning in 2013-14 will have to schedule one two-game series against a nonconference opponent.

In the past four seasons, UAA and UAF have played an annual, two-game, home-and-home series on the last weekend of February to determine the winner of the Governor's Cup. The Cup in 2013-14 will return to a four-game format. Cobb said the last two games of the Cup will likely be moved up at least three weeks so the teams don't play each other in Cup games at season's end and turn around and almost immediately meet in the playoffs.

UAA will also have to absorb some financial hits in the new WCHA.

Under UAA's current agreement with the league, it covers 12 airline fares for each league member traveling to Anchorage -- that comes to roughly $9,000 on average, Cobb said. Beginning in 2013-14, Cobb said UAA will have to pay $15,000 to each league opponent traveling to Anchorage.

Also, if UAA qualifies for the Final Five, it will have to cover its own airfare. Currently, the league pays all travel costs UAA incurs to get to the Final Five. Those costs have been minimal because both times UAA has advanced to the Final Five -- the league currently foots airfare when UAA travels to a first-round series -- it did so by winning a first-round series on the road and staying out on the road for the Final Five.

Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.

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