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Open Ice: A Final, Final Five?

08/23/2011, 3:26pm CDT
By Jim Rich

The WCHA Final Five held later this month in St. Paul has become the greatest college hockey conference tournament in the nation. And it’s not even close.

The five-game extravaganza began in 1993, pinballing between Milwaukee, St. Paul and Minneapolis before really taking off when the tournament became permanently entrenched at the Xcel Energy Center in 2001.
But the run may soon be done, as college hockey is about to undergo a major shake-up. As soon as 2014, the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin could be leaving the WCHA to join the newly formed Big Ten hockey conference. The talk is that the Gophers and Badgers will join forces with Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and the newly formed Penn State hockey program to form their own six-team league. This would leave the WCHA with 10 teams and their biggest draw for the Final Five would no longer be in the fold.
But should Minnesota and Wisconsin leave the WCHA to join a Big Ten conference? WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod believes the tournament will not only survive but continue to flourish. “The key for us is college hockey fans and even Gopher fans have come to realize even if the Gophers aren’t in it, they are still going to see the best in collegiate hockey no matter who’s in the tournament,” he says.
McLeod also points out that with the addition of Bemidji State and Nebraska-Omaha to the WCHA, there is a larger fan base within driving distance of St. Paul. Still, he knows the WCHA must aggressively market their product as the league’s current contract with the Xcel Energy Center expires in 2014, the same year as the predicted start-up of the Big Ten conference.
Could the Big Ten want their tournament in the capitol city of the State of Hockey?
“That would be a problem,” says former St. Cloud State Coach Craig Dahl. “I think it would create a real headache for the league. So the question would be where would you play? You could look at Denver, but I don’t know if there are really that many college hockey fans in Denver. North Dakota and St. Cloud are options, but the buildings would be smaller and it would damage the Final Five and the economics of the WCHA.
“I don’t see this as a good thing for college hockey,” says the 19 year veteran of the WCHA. “I think it’s driven by the Big Ten Network to get more games on TV and gain more revenue and more national exposure, but I don’t believe it’s good for the sport overall because some will say it’s the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.”
Still, McLeod and Dahl agree this is not the end for the WCHA. The league has great tradition and fantastic support from their member institutions, and they have survived other defections. Back in 1981, Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame and Michigan Tech all left to join the CCHA, leaving the WCHA with only six teams. Not only did the WCHA survive that loss, it has doubled in size and is arguably the greatest hockey conference in the country.

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