By Nate Tenopir, Sports Editor
In 2010, UNO became an official member of the WCHA, arguably the toughest conference in college hockey. With 37 national championships and a multitude of players in the NHL, the Mavs were picked to finish near the bottom of the conference.
Despite an early exit from the WCHA playoffs, UNO surprised a lot of pundits and ended the season in third place. Head coach Dean Blais earned the conference’s coach of the year award, led the team to its second straight 20-win season and into the NCAA playoffs for the first time since 2006.
Yet, just as it seemed the Mavs were getting used to their new digs, summer produced another shakeup in college hockey. When the season begins in 2013, UNO will become one of the inaugural members of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
“The National,” as it’s being referred to, is an answer to the formation of the Big Ten’s hockey conference. Though rumors had been swirling as early as last fall, nothing became official until just around the end of last year’s hockey season.
“It was confirmed that Penn St. was going to go varsity, so it was pretty much a known commodity that they were going to start the Big 10 conference,” said UNO associate Athletic Director Mike Kemp. “That talk took place and kind of got a lot of legs under it at the end of the hockey season. I think everybody started examining, what does this mean for college hockey, where will we go and what will happen?”
For the WCHA it meant the departure of the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin, two of the conferences historical heavyweights. The Golden Gophers and Badgers will be joining Penn St. and CCHA members Michigan, Michigan St. and Ohio St. in the Big 10 hockey conference.
Though the WCHA would still have 10 members and maintain an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament, some member schools began looking at other options. As a result, Denver, Colorado College, North Dakota, UNO, Minnesota-Duluth and Miami (Ohio) became the founding members of The National.
“About mid-May when we came back from the WCHA meetings it kind of took on a life of its own,” Kemp said. “Through the WCHA meetings a lot of different conversations are taking place with a lot of different people.”
Though the Mavs will be counted among the founding members of the new conference, UNO was more of a passenger than a driver on the bus to realignment. It might be easy to assume that a conference powerhouse such as North Dakota or Denver introduced the idea, but Kemp described the process as more of a group effort.
“It was a group of schools who kind of were more of the [ones] who obviously were working hard to make this thing…a least formulate the concept,” Kemp said. “Then they reached out to other schools.”
Asked to expand on which member of the new conference was the first to suggest the idea, Kemp said he wasn’t at liberty to say.
What Kemp did say, was that he and Athletic Director Trev Alberts had been in continuous discussion about the Mavs’ conference future ever since rumors about a Big 10 hockey conference surfaced. After a year of tough decisions, regarding a move to the Summit League and Division I, the decision to join The National came much easier.
“It’s kind of an ongoing thing but [we] kind of talked about what the future is gonna be with the Big 10 conference,” Kemp said. “Basically when that rumor started we started talking about what do we need to do or where should we be.”
“I think going through the spring it was more along the lines of, where is there gonna be to go. I think we all knew that a 10 team WCHA would be able to be successful, not ideal but successful. But I think for us it was a case of looking at our options and saying that this was really for us and for our fan base, the best option available.”
The creation of two new college hockey conferences may be just the tip of the iceberg. Now that Big 10 hockey and The National have become a reality, the WCHA and CCHA are left to try and survive as is or make further changes in their membership.
At the announcement of The National in July, Colorado College Athletic director Ken Ralph indicated that he expected the new conference to grow beyond six members. Though Notre Dame and The National have been taking a long look at each other, nothing yet has been made official.
A move by Notre Dame would reduce an already depleted CCHA to just six teams, none of which have any real name recognition. The remaining five teams in the WCHA, Alaska-Anchorage, Bemidji St., Michigan Tech, Minnesota-Mankato and St. Cloud State all face a similar situation.
For UNO it was an easy decision.
“We recognize here, and Trev has been very forthright about this since he arrived on campus, that hockey is our driver,” Kemp said. “Hockey is the sport that is our identity and as a result of that we’re going to commit to that and make it the priority. And I think that we looked for other institutions who were doing the same type of commitment.”