MADISON, Wis. - The Western Collegiate Hockey Association announced on Friday that the conference will expand from 10 to 12 teams for the 2010-2011 season with the additions of Bemidji State University and the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
“We’re grateful…and honored to be invited into the WCHA,” said Bemidji State Athletic Director Rick Goeb. “We’re just thrilled; we’re excited about the opportunities that it brings.”
New Nebraska-Omaha A.D. Trev Alberts said those in his program are pleased “to be a part of a conference that stands for the absolute best in collegiate hockey. UNO is committed to being a valued member of the WCHA.”
This marks the eighth time the WCHA has expanded since it was formed in 1951 first time since Minnesota State-Mankato was added in 1999-2000.
“What a day for us here in the WCHA,” said Commissioner Bruce McLeod to begin his opening remarks in an address to the media conducted via teleconference on Friday afternoon. “The addition of these teams really solidifies us and positions the WCHA to even bigger and better things in the future.”
Member schools voted to approve the expansion by a 9-0 margin with one abstention McLeod declined to identify. The referendum concluded a process which began in April at the WCHA league meetings.
McLeod would not disclose details of the terms of membership for each school other than to say they were negotiated. But his responses to questioning on the matter indicated the schools are entering under different circumstances which, to some degree, they are.
BSU applied for membership in the WCHA this past spring, but its bid was dependent upon the league finding an expansion partner for the Beavers to ensure the conference grows from the current 10 teams to 12.
McLeod and the WCHA’s structure committee, chaired by University of Minnesota Athletic Director Joel Maturi, quickly identified Nebraska-Omaha to be the best candidate.
“We directed our commissioner to explore some options as to who would be the best fit for a twelfth member”, said Maturi. “From day one, the membership believed that UNO was that school.”
UNO’s hiring of Dean Blais to fill its head-coaching vacancy only fueled speculation that the Mavericks would leave the Central Collegiate Hockey Association due to his history with the WCHA.
Blais, who coached the University of North Dakota to two NCAA titles in 10 seasons with the Sioux, took the reins of the Mavericks earlier this month after stints with the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets and the USHL’s Fargo Force.
"The CCHA, of course, is a great league and I wasn’t really sure where we’d end up,” said Blais. “But my deep-down love is for the WCHA and I’m happy to be back.”
The Mavericks have been members of the CCHA since 1999 making the decision to change conferences a difficult one according to Alberts. Travel costs, the ability for its fans to travel to road games, and the lure of natural geographic rivals were considered in the decision but Alberts was looking at a far bigger picture.
“The overriding factor was that, in ten years, as we continue to try to build our program to compete with the very best on a consistent basis, I think the conclusion was that being a member institution of the WCHA was the best avenue to get us where we wanted to be with respect to building an elite program,” said Alberts.
Bemidji State, whose unlikely berth in the Frozen Four was the Cinderella story of the 2009 NCAA tournament, becomes the fifth Minnesota-based conference member. The Beavers are a founding-member of College Hockey America which will dissolve at the conclusion of the 2009-2010 season due to declining membership in recent years.
“It’s a very special day and I’m very honored. I’m so proud of the program, but I’m more happy for the community, the region, [and] the hockey alumni,” said Beavers’ head coach Tom Serratore. “It’s just kind of like a 200-pound monkey off our back.”
McLeod’s top priority will be settling on the most palatable of several twelve-team scheduling formats being discussed internally. He was adamant, however, in stating that there would be no form of divisional set-up employed.
Also on the agenda is the restructuring of The Final Five, the conference’s playoff championship tournament. Currently, the top five teams advance to St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center with the fourth and fifth seeds playing on Thursday night to play their way into Friday’s semifinals.
The most likely scenario would result in a six-team field with only the top two seeds receiving byes into the semis. In this instance, the bottom four would play off in two Thursday evening contests for the right to advance.
Although there is much work ahead, the commissioner’s focus on Friday was celebrating his conference’s historic announcement.
“This is a happy and proud day for me. I’m happy because I think this is such a win-win circumstance for the WCHA, our new members and collegiate hockey in general,” said McLeod. “I could not be more proud of the way our WCHA members have handled this very complex circumstance and have been able to look beyond their own backyard and do what is best for college hockey and the WCHA.”
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