Seven of the 10 teams in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association want to create a new conference that doesn’t include the two Alaska schools or Alabama Huntsville, according to a statement released by the group’s consultant.
The schools say they want an “elite” conference with a smaller geographic footprint, one that would be made up of schools with the “highest standings for overall competitiveness … and an institutional investment that demonstrates significant commitment to their hockey programs and facilities.”
The statement was issued on the same day Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced a $130 million budget cut for the University of Alaska, a cut the university’s president said would be “devastating.”
It comes one month after UAA’s announcement that it is leaving Sullivan Arena, which seats more than 6,000 for hockey, and will instead play games at the rink at the Wells Fargo Sports Complex, which seats 800. UAF has also said it may consider leaving the Carlson Center for the smaller, on-campus Patty Center.
The seven schools who want to move ahead without UAA, UAF and Huntsville are Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State-Mankato and Northern Michigan.
The news caught UAA and UAF by surprise. UAA athletic director Greg Myford said he and hockey coach Matt Curley had no advance notice about Friday’s announcement, and UAF chancellor Dan White said the same thing.
“Clearly, the group of institutions choosing to depart the WCHA have been collaborating on doing so independent of UAA, UAF or UAH,” Myford said by email.
In a written statement, White said the Alaska schools might benefit from a conference realignment.
“We are encouraged that there are a number of teams looking now, or will be looking soon, to join an NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey conference," he said. "While disappointed, in our WCHA colleagues’ decision to leave, we look forward to the chance that lies ahead for building new partnerships.”
There are 60 NCAA Division I college hockey teams. Only one of them, Arizona State, is an independent; the other 59 all belong to conferences.
Morris Kurtz, the spokesman for the seven schools, said the group has already approached the NCAA about breaking away from the WCHA. The schools will remain in the WCHA for the next two seasons and hope to begin play in a new conference in the 2021-22 season, he said.
“The seven schools are calling it a ‘transformative endeavor,’ ” Kurtz, the former athletic director at St. Cloud State, said in a phone interview. "This isn’t about us being against anyone else, this is for the best academic and athletic opportunities for the student athlete at these seven schools.
“These institutions are simply interested in providing what they feel is the best direction going forward.”
The news sent shock waves throughout college hockey and was a hot topic on an online fan forum.
“While this news is disappointing, the WCHA will work to assure that any members that do withdraw do so in accordance with WCHA Bylaws,” WCHA president and commission Bill Robertson said in a statement from the league.
A Friday story by the Toledo Blade, which covers Bowling Green hockey, said the seven schools “had grown weary of the extensive travel and a consistently weak bottom of the conference …”
UAA, UAF and Huntsville are the farthest-flung schools in the 10-team WCHA, and UAA and Huntsville routinely finish at the bottom of the standings, with UAF usually finishing in the bottom five.
Curley said he was disappointed to hear about the plan but wants to hear more before commenting further.
“Although I am disappointed to hear about a potential shift in the WCHA, it is still too early to make any assumptions of what that means,” he said by text. “(We) will work in the coming days and weeks to gather more information.”
This story has been updated to includes comments from Greg Myford, Dan White and Matt Curley.