WCHA hockey to name new member

Beth Bragg
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News

The teams that make the Western Collegiate Hockey Association a powerhouse conference talked about the new league they're forming at a press conference Wednesday, two days before the league they're abandoning plans to announce the addition of a new member.

UAA athletic director Steve Cobb said the WCHA will make the announcement Friday in St. Paul, Minn., where representatives of the conference's five remaining schools are meeting to discuss their future.

The additional member will give the WCHA six teams for the 2013-14 season, when seven current members of the 12-team league bolt to new leagues.

Leaving the league for the National Collegiate Hockey Conference -- that's the name of the new league -- are defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth, North Dakota, Colorado College, Denver and Nebraska-Omaha. The NCHC's sixth member, Miami of Ohio, comes from the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, the league that also includes UAF.

At a press conference Wednesday in Colorado Springs, Colo., North Dakota athletic director Brian Faison said Notre Dame, another CCHA member, might also join the new league.

"Notre Dame is in conversations with us," he said. "They're certainly a program that meets our core values of our conference and we have an interest in them, but we'll continue to explore other options."

The NCHC teams share a "like-mindedness" about college hockey, Faison said. Their priorities are competitiveness, exposure, an institutional commitment to play and fund hockey at the highest level, and tradition and history.

Though they are leaving a 59-year-old league that has produced 37 NCAA champions -- more than any other conference -- the NCHC teams "share a historic commitment to championship- level hockey," Denver coach George Gwozdecky said at the press conference. All six teams competed in the NCAA tournament this year.

"This type of conference, where you have the best playing each other every weekend starting in October is a daunting task," Gwozdecky said. "We want to play the best. We understand it's going to be difficult."

The competitiveness of the teams was a big draw for Nebraska-Omaha, which joined the WCHA last season along with Bemidji State.

"We've made a huge commitment to hockey," athletic director Trev Alberts said. "This is exactly what we envisioned two and a half years ago, aligning with programs that have really competed at the highest level of hockey."

Besides the five teams that are headed to the NCHC, two other WCHA teams -- Minnesota and Wisconsin -- will leave in 2013-14 for the Big 10 conference that debuts that season.

The creation of the Big 10 helped inspire the creation of the NCHC. Both of the new leagues expect to increase their television exposure -- the Big 10 has its own network -- but Cobb thinks there will be more losers than winners once the reality of two new leagues sets in.

"We had two leagues (the WCHA and CCHA) and now we have four," he said. "Everyone's got to play a ton more nonconference games and they are a lot more expensive to play than conference games -- the guarantees get higher and people have to travel more. The cost in three years is up for everybody, and revenues are gonna be down."

The teams that remain in the WCHA -- UAA, St. Cloud State, Michigan Tech, Bemidji State and Minnesota State-Mankato -- may suffer most.

The conference's Final Five tournament is a big money-making that Cobb says pays each team in the league anywhere from $80,000 to $130,000 a year, depending on ticket sales. Even if the WCHA continues to hold a conference tournament, attendance -- and therefore revenue -- is bound to suffer, because the departing teams are the league's biggest draws.

UAA could also take a financial hit when it comes to home games. Besides UAF, some of UAA's biggest crowds show up when Minnesota and North Dakota are in town.

UAA coach Dave Shyiak said it's too early to tell if a diminished WCHA will hurt UAA's ability to recruit players. But the changing look of the league doesn't bother him.

"I'm not disappointed at all. We're not a player in the big scheme of things, and the other schools that wanted to start this new conference, they have a different agenda. We're continuing to build a strong program and that's our focus," said Shyiak, who last season led the Seawolves to their second Final Five appearance in program history.

Reach Beth Bragg at 257-4335 or bbragg@adn.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.