A little more than three months ago, Minnesota-Duluth won its first Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Championship. On Wednesday, the Bulldogs made history again, although they had company this time.

The reigning national champions were one of six schools – along with Denver, Colorado College, North Dakota, Miami (Ohio) and Nebraska-Omaha – that joined together to form the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. The conference, which will begin play for the 2013-14 season, is the second new conference to be announced this year, following on the announcement in March that the Big Ten will sponsor hockey bginning with the 2012-13 season.

I think it’s a great opportunity for schools not only in the new conferences, but also the schools in the old conferences to realign and find common ground.
-- Denver head coach George Gwozdecky

“The collegiate athletics climate has been particularly volatile this year, with conference realignment affecting a number of sports and universities,” said North Dakota athletic director Brian Faison, who joined Denver head coach George Gwozdecky to unveil the new conference’s name at a news conference in Colorado Springs, Colo., “Six like-minded institutions have come together through this process, guided by four core principles: competitiveness, an institutional commitment to hockey at the highest level, national exposure and history and tradition.”

Indeed, the new conference boasts a storied tradition from the get-go, with all six institutions claiming men’s ice hockey as their flagship sport, and four of them – Denver, CC, North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth – claiming 17 NCAA championships between them. Miami, meanwhile, has enjoyed a rise to national prominence under current head coach Enrico Blasi, with six consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and Frozen Four appearances in 2009 and 2010.

However, with the impending departures of these six programs from their current home conferences – Miami from the Central Collegiate Hockey Association and the other five from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association – the future of those storied institutions has been thrown into question.

With the departure of CC, Denver, North Dakota, Nebraska-Omaha and Minnesota-Duluth to the NCHC and Minnesota and Wisconsin to the Big Ten, the WCHA is currently on pace to have five members when the NCHC begins play in the fall of 2013: Alaska-Anchorage, St. Cloud State, Minnesota State, Bemidji State and Michigan Tech.

The CCHA, meanwhile, having already lost Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State to the Big Ten, is set to have seven member schools, but with Notre Dame considering options in the NCHC and in Hockey East and Western Michigan campaigning for inclusion in the NCHC as well, the CCHA could be similarly left with five members in 2013: Northern Michigan, Lake Superior State, Ferris State, Bowling Green and Alaska.

That would leave both the WCHA and CCHA one school short of the NCAA minimum for an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, and while both conferences are in talks to address their respective membership situations, it’s easy to understand the unrest among college hockey fans about the state of uncertainty that exists in the sport.

Having spent the majority of his life in college hockey as a player, an assistant coach and a head coach, Gwozdecky not only understands that unrest, but finds it more than a little familiar.

FACEBOOK FANS' REACTION
Clint Scullion: This is not good news. ... Anything that takes away from 50+ year old rivalries is just wrong!
Joe Scheidecker: It's quite funny how people blame MN and WI for this. Like they had a choice in Penn State's decision to add hockey in a few years? Their hands are tied! If you want to be mad at someone, be mad at UND and Denver or any of the other teams bolting from the WCHA that chose to do so, not the ones that had no choice.
Tommy Amundson: If you look at it UM and UW left the WCHA, taking away stake from the larger schools for voting to expand the leagues financially. The same happened with Mich. State and Michigan and the CCHA. All this really is is the schools that want to expand and invest (or at least can afford to invest) more money in their programs from the WCHA and CCHA are joining forces for a new conference and the schools that don't want to invest that kind of money in their programs are more or less getting left behind (or choosing to stay behind).
Tracy Pogue: This is not about hockey at all. Follow the money ... TV money has got to be the carrot. Sad day for college hockey IMHO.
Sam Haugen: Watching Duluth join the new conference, while leaving Mankato and St. Cloud behind, is very frustrating. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. The stars aligned perfectly for UMD.
Mark Kibby: I know a lot of people are po'd that the Big Ten took 2 of the WCHA teams and the NCHC took a few more, but this could all be good for college hockey, a game we all love!
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“Back in the prehistoric times when I played in the WCHA and all five of the WCHA coaches in the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference were playing in the WCHA, it was a different league,” Gwozdecky said. “Michigan, Michigan State and Notre Dame were part of the WCHA. In those days, you had your tremendously strong programs, Denver being one of them. Back in those days, there were certain programs that struggled to be able to win, and if you didn’t bring your ‘A’ game on a specific night, if you were one of the top teams in the league, you still had a pretty good chance to win. Not so much anymore.

“The naysayers were saying at the time – I remember very vividly – that Michigan, Michigan State and Notre Dame were foolish to leave the WCHA. That would be the end of college hockey as we knew it, the WCHA would lose three strong programs. The three schools leaving would soon be back, because the CCHA was 'the bus league,' as they were known at that time. A few years later, there were a few schools in the ECAC that said, ‘You know what? We want to align ourselves together and form a new conference,’ and led by Lou Lamoriello, they decided to form Hockey East.

"This is not the first time the landscape has changed, and it won’t be the last time. I think it’s a great opportunity for schools not only in the new conferences, but also the schools in the old conferences to realign and find common ground. What a great opportunity they have to be able to be atop their conferences, to be able to win championships and get to the national tournament. I think it’s a great opportunity, and a great year for college hockey that we’re about to embark on.”

At the very least, the move does effectively bring to the end an era in which nationally recognized athletic powerhouses like Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Notre Dame battled smaller schools like Lake Superior, Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan for conference supremacy, and traveled to places like Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.; Mankato, Minn.; and Big Rapids, Mich., on a regular basis, although this arrangement will live on to some degree in Hockey East, where Division II institutions like Merrimack and UMass-Lowell regularly compete against opponents from nationally recognized Division I all-sports conferences like the Big East (Providence), Atlantic 10 (UMass) and the ACC (Boston College).

That said, however, this new college hockey landscape, with at least two conferences comprised of fewer than 10 teams, will be much more accessible to institutions looking to start varsity ice hockey programs. In addition, the opportunities for smaller schools like Michigan Tech, Lake Superior and Northern Michigan – all of which have NCAA championships in their histories – to win conference championships and compete in the NCAA tournament would presumably increase in a conference made up of like-minded institutions.

This, of course, presumes that those programs would remain part of college hockey. After all, the concern has been raised that without the revenue generated by home games against the likes of Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota and Notre Dame, the smaller schools that have been left behind in the WCHA and the CCHA will struggle to stay float. Blasi, however, is confident that the creation of the NCHC will prove to be the right move not only for its member institutions, but for college hockey as a whole.

“We’ve always kept in mind the betterment of college hockey as a whole,” Blasi said. “It is our belief and our hope that everything happens the right way and everyone aligns themselves in a good spot and that’s what’s best for their own institutions.”

Whether that happens remains to be seen. In the meantime, while the puck may not drop until October on the 2011-12 NCAA hockey season, the weeks and months to come are sure to be action-packed.

Related:
Six DI schools create National Collegiate Hockey Conference