DETROIT - While several issues still have to be ironed out for the Western Collegiate Hockey Association for 2013-14 and beyond, the nine member teams approved a nine-team postseason tournament format and 28-game league schedule during three days of intensive meetings at the Westin Hotel at Detroit Metro Airport.
"We have accomplished a great deal and feel tremendously upbeat about where we are at as we look ahead to the 2013-14 season," WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod said in a press release Thursday after meetings concluded. "We have had very productive meetings with the coaches, athletic directors and presidents all present and we are united in moving forward to ensure the continued success of the WCHA and its member teams."
Michigan Tech, Alaska-Anchorage, Minnesota State and Bemidji State will be the four current WCHA teams remaining in the conference during its inaugural post-realignment season, and they will be joined by Alaska-Fairbanks, Bowling Green, Ferris State, and U.P. rivals Northern Michigan and Lake Superior State.
Michigan Tech hockey coach Mel Pearson talks to his players in a game earlier this year. He and Tech athletic director Suzanne Sanregret spent Tuesday through Thursday in Detroit talking with coaches, athletic directors and presidents of the nine member schools that will comprise the Western Collegiate Hockey Association starting in 2013-14 after conference realignment. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
Several issues remained unresolved, but Tech coach Mel Pearson agreed that the Tuesday-through-Thursday meetings were productive.
"I think they really were. I've spent a lot of time in college hockey and they were probably the best and most productive meetings I've been at," he said. "There were a lot of different opinions and lots of important decisions to be made. Everyone did a really good job with just taking our time and making the right decisions for our league. ... We got things accomplished."
Member team coaches, athletic directors and presidents were all present at the meetings, which were held from about 3 to 8 p.m. Tuesday; 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday; and 8 to 9 a.m. Thursday.
"There were a lot of productive decisions made. The league is very unique with two schools from Alaska, but there's a commitment from everyone going forward," Tech athletic director Suzanne Sanregret said. "The biggest thing this past week was that we determined what kind of playoff format we wanted so we can begin to negotiate what venue we want for the WCHA Final Five."
Some proposed a six-team format, and others eight, but the league agreed to have all nine league teams in the playoffs. The No. 1 seed will get a bye while the other eight schools will be in best-of-three first-round series.
According to Jack Hittinger of the Bemidji Pioneer, the two Alaska schools would play each other every year in the first round of the playoffs - unless one of them earned the No. 1 seed - to avoid some of the travel/cost issues that would otherwise possibly have required a team to travel to Alaska three times in one season.
But after the first round of the playoffs, the WCHA Final Five's location is unclear.
"There's some viable options ... and the league will explore neutral-site options completely first," Pearson said, "but they didn't rule out a campus site hosting either."
He said the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., is still an option during alternating years with the Big Ten, which will rotate between there and Detroit's Joe Louis Arena during the league's first four years. The National Collegiate Hockey Conference, which will be made up of current WCHA members North Dakota, Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha and St. Cloud State, plus current Central Collegiate Hockey Association members Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan, will hold its championship weekend at Target Center in Minneapolis for its first five years.
Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, the Huntington Center in Toledo, Ohio, and areas in the Chicago area were also considered for the WCHA. The Resch Center in Green Bay was discussed, but with the Wisconsin High School Association inking a deal to host its girls' basketball championships there this spring, chances are small the Final Five would be able to secure that location.
Also during the league meetings, members approved a 28-game league schedule that will involve playing six teams four times each and two teams twice. Many dates are still in flux, but Pearson said Tech will play both Alaska teams twice in the first year. The Huskies will likely play the four road games on the same trip during a nine-day period over Thanksgiving break.
"It's the first time as far as I know that both Alaska schools will be in the same league. It creates a lot of travel and cost issues," Pearson said. "It wasn't so much a compromise as it was a sacrifice to help make sure the Alaska schools stay relevant."
Alabama-Huntsville is another school fighting to stay relevant, and while it has recommitted itself to maintaining a Division I program, it has yet to find conference affiliation.
"We discussed Alabama-Huntsville at length," Pearson said. "They've done some lobbying to the coaches, ADs and presidents. We agreed to listen to them and let them make a presentation. That's as far as it got."
Sanregret will be heavily involved in finalizing the situation with Alabama-Huntsville and future WCHA decisions after being appointed to the league's steering committee along with Minnesota State President Richard Davenport, Ferris State President Dave Eisler and Bowling Green State athletic airector Greg Christopher.
The league's governance will have the Presidents Council act as the Board of Directors with the athletic directors serving as the Management Council.
"The Presidents Council created the steering committee as a working group to do a lot of the heavy lifting," said Sanregret, who already plays an active role in the currently formatted WCHA.