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Fairbanks in WCHA pool

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By Danny Martin

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

FAIRBANKS — The University of Alaska Fairbanks is considering applying to become a member of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in the future.

However, the switch from its longtime affiliation with the Central Collegiate Hockey Association isn’t going to happen this season and any thoughts of a change are predicated on if the University of Nebraska-Omaha goes from the CCHA to the WCHA.

How UAF got linked to the possibility of becoming a member of the conference, which includes intrastate rival Alaska Anchorage, has to do with the current landscape of NCAA Division I hockey.

There are 58 D-I teams in six conferences, but College Hockey America is disbanding after the upcoming season. Two of its four members, Niagara of New York state and Robert Morris of Pittsburgh, have been accepted into the Atlantic Hockey Association for the 2010-11 season.

The other two members, Bemidji State of Minnesota and Alabama-Huntsville, applied about two months ago to other conferences — Bemidji to the WCHA, which has 10 teams, and Alabama-Huntsville to the CCHA, which has 12 members.

According to information from UAF athletic director Forrest Karr, who is also chairman of the NCAA Ice Hockey Rules Committee, Bemidji wasn’t able to secure the required support because the WCHA isn’t interested in becoming an 11-team conference.

The WCHA, according to Karr, offered to reconsider Bemidji’s application if another institution applies at the same time.

That’s where Nebraska-Omaha and UAF, who have been scheduling clustermates in the CCHA since the 1997-98 season, enter the hypothetical picture. UNO and UAF play each other four times per season — two games in Fairbanks and two in Omaha.

Nebraska-Omaha has a new look in its athletic hierarchy, as Trev Alberts, a former football linebacker at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, is now the athletic director, and Mike Kemp is now the associate AD after serving as head coach of Nebraska-Omaha’s hockey team since its first varsity season in 1997-98.

Alberts and Kemp have been in talks with officials from the WCHA about becoming the 12th member of their conference, and they have talked with officials from the CCHA about remaining in theirs.

Karr said Thursday that during the NCAA Hockey Rules committee meeting in Naples, Fla., in April he was approached by WCHA officials about their conference.

“They were asking preliminary feeler questions,” Karr said in a telephone interview, “such as ‘Do you think there’s any possibility that UAF would have any interest in at least analyzing and looking at the possibility of joining the WCHA?’”

Karr also pointed out Thursday that, “Our commissioner (Tom Anastos) is fully aware of everything and we have a great relationship with him, and Bruce McLeod (WCHA commissioner) has asked us to sit back and wait to see what happens with Nebraska-Omaha.”

UAF has been an official member of the CCHA since the 1995-96 season. This past season, the Nanooks placed fourth in the conference in the regular season, defeated Ohio State in two games of a best-of-three quarterfinal playoff series at the Carlson Center and advanced to the CCHA Championship Tournament at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

“We’ve had a very strong partnership for 15 years, and we have a strong leader in our commissioner. I can’t say enough good things about him,” Karr said. “It takes time to build things, and we have great working relationships with the other schools.

“It’s been a great competitive fit, too. I think since about 2000-01, we’ve averaged finishing around seventh place. We’ve competed well in a good strong league with equal competition.”

Steve Cobb, UAA athletic director and a member of the WCHA Structure Committee, said Thursday by phone that the WCHA is scheduled to make a decision in August about expansion.

“We decided at our last meeting to do it in August, and if we don’t do it then, we’ll worry about other things that members need to decide on,” Cobb said. “There’s obviously some plusses for the institutions, but people are going to vote on what’s in the best interests of their school, their league and college hockey in general.”

UAF seems attractive to the WCHA, and vice versa, for geographical and financial reasons.

Most of the teams in the CCHA are located in the Midwest. Among the other 10 members, six are in Michigan (Lake Superior, Northern Michigan, Western Michigan, Ferris State, Michigan State and the University of Michigan), three are in Ohio (Bowling Green, Miami and Ohio State) and one is in Indiana (Notre Dame).

Among its other nine members, the WCHA has two teams in Colorado (Denver and Colorado College), four in Minnesota (St. Cloud State, Minnesota State, Minnesota-Duluth and the University of Minnesota) and the University of North Dakota and Michigan Tech.

“From my point of view, we would support and vote for UAF coming into the WCHA for a number of reasons,” Cobb said. “We have very cooperative programs. We work together.”

Cobb then joked, “We only hate each other when we’re competing against each other.”

“The rest of the time,” he said, “we have the same issues and challenges.’’

If UAF was to become a member of the WCHA, it would face UAA at least four times each season.

“One night, we could be playing for the Governor’s Cup and there could also be a trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line,” Cobb said.

Currently, the teams play home-and-home in the two-game Alaska Airlines Governor’s Cup Series, and compete in each other’s tournaments — UAA’s Kendall Hockey Classic and UAF’s Brice Alaska Goal Rush — but don’t face each other in the early-season, four-team tournaments.

A switch to the WCHA could financially benefit UAF when it comes to travel costs, particularly for the Nanooks to travel to games and for its opponents to come to Fairbanks.

Karr estimates a savings of about $200,000 if the WCHA required UAF to subsidize 12 plane tickets. UAF, in an agreement with the CCHA since 1994, subsidizes 25 plane tickets for opponents coming to Fairbanks. In comparison, UAA subsidizes 12 plane tickets for WCHA opponents coming to Anchorage.

Whether there’s a change or not for UAF in conferences, one thing that will remain the same is teams that come to Alaska will still have an exemption from the NCAA limit of 34 regular-season hockey games.

Michigan, for example, plays UAF and UAA in the Kendall Classic on Oct. 10-11, but neither game counts against the Wolverines’ regular-season schedule.

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Thanks for posting the info. That wouldn't be so bad I guess. Offers a ray of hope for Bemidji in an even 12 team conference. I'm assuming then that Alabama Huntsville would backfill Fairbanks in CCHA?

The only beef I have is how crappy Duluth plays when they travel to Anchorage, given the long flight. Now imagine a longer flight and then getting off the plane in -40 degree weather. It's 2 pm and it's dark outside. Let's go warm up and hit the rink in some artificial light!

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The the Sioux Sports HSOforum:

Here's what's supposed to be going down tonight.

The 10 athletic directors will be on a conference call at 8 p.m. Central tonight. They will take a straw poll on the terms that commish Bruce McLeod has negotiated with Omaha. The results will then be communicated to Omaha.

If it is successful, Omaha will ask for the terms in writing. Then, Omaha will be asked to submit a formal letter of application.

The application will have to be approved by the structure committee, executive committee and finally by the faculty athletic reps of each school (pretty much just a formality). The league would probably process Bemidji State's application along with Omaha's.

I'd like to be able to report tonight how the straw poll turns out, but I'm not having any luck right now lining someone up. I also am not entirely sure on the terms that McLeod has worked out with Omaha, but it is believed that the league might be waiving the entire membership fee.

Shane Frederick of the Mankato Free Press reports that MSU-Mankato paid three installments of $40,000 to get in the league and did not get any share of postseason revenue during that time. McLeod said in April that the WCHA gave him authority to use postseason revenue as a bargaining chip with Omaha.

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Omaha would draw enough attendance in its first weekend to spring for the fee. Their rink holds close to the X.

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