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WCHA takes step toward expanding conference

by Bob Snow
There is never a question about which league is the most storied in college-hockey history with its 36 national championships since 1948.

But the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) took a historic vote at its annual meeting in Marco Island, Fla., last week, creating quite a few questions that need answers in the next 12 months.

"The Western Collegiate Hockey Association membership today took a positive step forward in their decision to embrace expansion," said WCHA Commissioner Bruce M. McLeod on a conference call Tuesday. "And we will pursue expansion once we have completed further studies and identified potential members that fit the league's criteria for membership. Obviously, there are numerous issues involved in expansion."

The lifting of the moratorium on expansion means the WCHA can now entertain membership applications.

Why this move by the WCHA comprised of Alaska Anchorage, Colorado College, Denver, Michigan Tech, University of Minnesota, Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota State, North Dakota, St. Cloud State and Wisconsin?

Because the ongoing and most-pressing issue is how best to dissolve College Hockey America with Bemidji State, Alabama-Huntsville, Niagara and Robert Morris the only remaining teams.

Wayne State University and Findlay University dropped hockey for budget reasons during the past few years, while Air Force joined Atlantic Hockey in 2006, reducing the CHA to its fragile foursome. 

"The WCHA has a proud history of being sensitive to the issue of expansion and the plight of other collegiate hockey programs," said McLeod, "and today's development is a further indication that the Association will continue its tradition of assisting in the growth and development of collegiate ice hockey with an ultimate goal of expanding.

"The WCHA also wants to note that Bemidji State University's presentation to the league at the annual meeting on April 27 was very professional and well received."

While that presentation brought no immediate action by the WCHA, the translation is Bemidji State, fresh off its first Frozen Four appearance and located in the geographic heart of the WCHA, are a lock for admission as the 11th team -- and fifth Minnesota-based team -- in the 2010-11 season.

Two months ago, Atlantic Hockey voted to admit Niagara (New York) and Robert Morris (Pennsylvania) to become the 11th and 12th teams in Atlantic Hockey for the 2010-11 season.

The current CHA foursome will remain intact for next season, retaining its automatic bid for postseason play for the league tournament winner while the final layout plays out. 

Two former WCHA standouts preparing for the Boston Bruins' second-round encounter with the Carolina Hurricanes weighed in on last week's news.

"I'm obviously biased, but I think it's the best league in college hockey," said former CC Tiger Mark Stuart. "Less (out-of-conference) games is not a big thing cutting out some of those games. It might take some time for Bemidji to compete (across) the WCHA powers, but that program has been getting better and better. Then as Bemidji develops you've got five rivals in Minnesota. Bigger games there."

"Travel-wise," said former Minnesota Gopher Blake Wheeler, "it's a smart thing with Bemidji coming in. They always give Minnesota trouble when they play them; it's a tenacious program. Joining the WCHA will do wonders for their recruitment. With the strength of high school hockey in Minnesota, it's a plus for the state and the league."

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