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WCHA Adds Nebraska-Omaha and Bemidji State

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I am supprised nobody has posted this yet.

June 26, 2009

WCHA Adds Nebraska-Omaha and Bemidji State

By Jess Myers

After decades in college hockey as a player and an administrator, Bruce McLeod has seen pretty much everything and doesn’t get rattled easily. But the 62-year-old commissioner of the WCHA admitted tossing and turning in bed in the wee hours of Friday morning as he pondered the fundamental and monumental change in the college hockey landscape that he’d orchestrated.

Late Friday afternoon, McLeod formally announced that the 10-team WCHA will be home to an even dozen starting in the 2010-11 season, as Bemidji State University and the University of Nebraska-Omaha join the fold.

It was an announcement that had been anticipated for months, as BSU was in desperate need of a home, and the WCHA members would only consider expanding to 12 teams, not 11. But McLeod told INCH that as late in the game as Thursday morning, there was not enough league-wide support to get it done.

That changed in the span of 24 hours, and after a conference call among the league’s 10 athletic directors on Thursday evening, McLeod got the unanimous support for expansion that he’d been seeking.

“I take my hat off to the members, because they really stepped up to the pump,” McLeod said. “It was a long process and really difficult for everyone to get on the same page and not look at the ‘me’ situation first. I’m proud that they put aside the personal things and gave this unanimous support.”

Among the biggest hurdles was money, as some of the current WCHA schools expressed concern about splitting league revenues 12 ways instead of 10 ways, and about the potential lost revenue due to fewer visits from marquee opponents like Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota.

“Everyone kept saying, ‘What is this going to cost us?’” McLeod said. He stressed the potential new sources of revenue that could offset those negatives, such as adding a sixth first round playoff series.

Both teams fit into the league geographically, with Bemidji State less than five hours by bus from half of the WCHA’s current members and Nebraska-Omaha providing a kind of bridge between Minnesota State and Denver. McLeod noted that unlike bringing new, unproven programs on board, the WCHA is adding a 2009 Frozen Four team that won 13 national titles before going D-I, and a big-market, big-building team that’s just added one of the more successful coaches in college hockey.

“By hiring Dean (Blais) and (Mike) Hastings, you can see what’s going on in Omaha and how they’re getting after it,” McLeod said. “And Bemidji has a successful program, a new building on the way, and that’s in the heart of hockey country.”

Ground was broken in April for Bemidji’s 4,000-seat regional event center, which will be located on the south shore of Lake Bemidji and will house Beaver hockey starting in 2010. Nebraska-Omaha plays in the 16,680-seat Qwest Center, located north of downtown Omaha on the Missouri River.

While not giving details on the financial arrangements regarding each program’s terms of admission to the league, McLeod acknowledged that the two new members were in very different situations. BSU was facing the potential loss of its program with the dissolution of College Hockey America, while UNO was seemingly comfortable in the CCHA. It has been rumored that UNO worked out an arrangement by which the school will pay a sharply reduced entry fee to join the WCHA and share in playoff revenue immediately.

McLeod said no decision has been made about the future of the WCHA Final Five, but there has been exploration of changes there as well. The league hierarchy has spoken with the Xcel Energy Center about a six-team, five-game tournament with two games on Thursday, two on Friday and a championship game on Saturday (eliminating the league’s current third place game).

Bemidji State’s hockey program began in 1948, and the Beavers won national titles on the NCAA D-II and D-III levels and in the NAIA before becoming a D-I program in 2001. Nebraska-Omaha started playing hockey D-I in 1997 and joined the CCHA two years later. The Mavericks’ best CCHA finish has been fourth place, in 2001 and 2005.

It was originally believed that any new WCHA teams would begin conference play in 2011-12 but McLeod said it was moved up a year due to concerns from UNO about whether the CCHA would allow them to play two seasons as a lame duck, or whether they would have to spend the 2011-12 season as an independent. The commissioner said they are happy to have the teams starting in 2010-11, but that presents a new set of challenges, as schedules for a 10-team WCHA were already pretty well set for that season.

Still, after months of work and what he described as a “pretty long haul over the last few weeks,” McLeod seemed elated to have the deal done for the good of his league and for college hockey as a whole.

“With our 10-team league we’d never been in better shape, but this is definitely a win-win situation for everybody,” McLeod said. “Each team brings something good to the table for us in its own way. This solidifies our conference and solidifies out footprint a little bit.”

The WCHA was originally founded as the Midwest Collegiate Hockey League in 1951 as a seven-team conference with Colorado College, Denver, Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota and North Dakota. WCHA teams have won 36 of the 62 NCAA hockey titles. The 2009 Frozen Four was just the fourth time in college hockey history that a WCHA team has failed to make the four-team field.

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