With the 2011 NCAA Frozen Four solidified, and the puck not set to drop in the semifinals until April 7, it's worth pausing to recognize that the two college hockey conferences that will be represented in St. Paul, Minn., are going to look dramatically different in the coming years.
The Western Collegiate Hockey Association, which sends the University of North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth to this year's Frozen Four, and the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, represented by Michigan and Notre Dame, each stand to lose marquee programs when the Big Ten Conference assembles a six-team league in time for the 2013-14 season. The new league will feature Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State from the CCHA and longtime WCHA rivals Minnesota and Wisconsin, plus a start-up program from Penn State.
Though small, the league could be considered the new premier college hockey conference in the country - at least on paper. Right now, the teams that will compete in the Big Ten have won a combined 23 men's national championships, led by Michigan's nine. Michigan State will take its three titles, leaving remaining CCHA teams with a combined five national championships (pending this year's outcome). The cupboard won't be nearly as bare in the WCHA, which despite losing 11 titles total with the departures of Wisconsin and Minnesota, still boasts 19 men's national championships (with a 20th possible in less than two weeks), including seven each for Denver and North Dakota.
But the WCHA, which has grown to 12 teams, still stands to lose plenty of luster. Its 30 NCAA men's championships are nearly three times the number of Hockey East and six times the number of the Eastern College Athletic Conference. (Hockey East was shut out of the Frozen Four this year for the first time since 2005, when all four teams came from the WCHA.) Moreover, WCHA teams have won all 11 NCAA women's tournaments held to date.
It's no wonder that WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod began preparing for the shakeup well before the Big Ten announcement last week. He met with Minnesota men's coach Don Lucia and Wisconsin men's coach Mike Eaves last September about preserving each team's WCHA rivalries during future non-conference schedules - schedules that should be accommodating given the fact that Big Ten teams will play only 20 conference games. "We've been proactive about it for quite a while now," McLeod told insidecollegehockey.com.
Such arrangements may offer the best of both worlds, but it will be interesting to see beginning two years from now which league emerges as the best of the West, and thus becomes the premier college hockey conference in the entire country - not just on paper, but on the ice.