By Bill Brophy
They have been handing out national championships for college hockey since 1948. Michigan won the first won, beating Dartmouth 8-4, at the Broadmoor Ice Palace in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Now let these numbers roll around in your head: In the 71 years a title has been handed out, a team connected with the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (or the leagues that preceded it which held a different name) has won 37 national championships. Another 28 league members were national runners-up.
No other college hockey organization has dominated the sport like the WCHA or its predecessors, the Midwest Collegiate Hockey League, which was organized in 1951 and renamed the Western Intercollegiate Hockey League in 1953.
"There was no doubt. The WCHA was always the best league," said Mike Sertich who coached for 20 years at Minnesota Duluth and Michigan Tech. "Michigan had a great run under Vic Heyliger when college hockey was just getting started and then (Denver's) Murray Armstrong brought in those big Canadian kids and dominated for a stretch."
Nowadays, hockey fans can gather over a cold one and debate which league is the best in college hockey over the past dozen years. Sadly, no NCAA title was handed out last season because of COVID's cancellation of the postseason and Minnesota State fans will be happy to make the argument that the Mavericks had a legitimate chance to win it all. But before 2008 there is no doubt. The West was best.
Michigan was the first team to win a national title under the WCHA banner as a member of the MCHL in the 1951-52 season. Pick a decade and you'll find a WCHA team accepting the national trophy. Michigan won four of its nine national championships in the 1950s. Denver won four of its eight titles in the 1960s with Armstrong as coach. Minnesota won three of its five championships in the '70s under Herb Brooks and North Dakota won three titles under Gino Gasparini in the '80s.
Overall Michigan won eight titles as a WCHA or MCHL or WIHL member, Denver and North Dakota won seven while in the WCHA; Wisconsin six, Minnesota five, Michigan Tech three and Colorado College, Michigan State and Northern Michigan one apiece.
From the 1959-60 season, when Denver showed its muscle, went 25-4-3 and beat and tied the gold medal winning U.S. Olympic team, until the NCAA Frozen Four featured four WCHA in Columbus, Ohio in 2005, there was little dispute on where the power in college hockey lived.
How did this run of success happen?
The easy answer is that the WCHA always had the best players and best coaches.
"We had the right set of institutions; the core group was committed to hockey from the start," said Bruce McLeod who played in the league at Minnesota Duluth and later was the commissioner for 20 years. "Michigan was the early one who had success and then Colorado College was good for awhile and then Denver.
"But the league always had institutions who believed that hockey was important to them. It was that way at Minnesota with (John) Mariucci and then Herb (Brooks). And then Bob (Johnson) came to Wisconsin and hockey had success there and he encouraged the growth of the game."
McLeod spent 20 years as commissioner and in that span WCHA teams won eight national titles, 10 Hobey Baker awards and established the WCHA Final Five as the pre-eminent post-season tournament in college hockey in his tenure. McLeod also played on a line at Minnesota Duluth with Keith "Huffer" Christiansen and stayed on at UMD to work in athletic administration for 25 years.
He saw what league pioneers like Ralph Romano, McLeod's boss at UMD; and George Shubert, the faculty rep at North Dakota, did to build the league and give it a foundation. He was also appreciative of leaders like his predecessor, commissioner Otto Breitenbach who grew the game by starting the WCHA's interlocking schedule with Hockey East in the mid-80s
"We were fortunate we had hockey people as AD's to, guys like Rick Yeo at Michigan Tech and Rick Comley at Northern Michigan," said McLeod. "Pat Richter was a busy guy when he was the AD at Wisconsin. He didn't play hockey, but his son was a player in the league so he would appreciate the league and come to our league meetings every year. It showed hockey was big at his institution and that was big for us. You would go to games around the league and see the chancellor and president at the games in Duluth or North Dakota. That told me hockey was important on their campus. But it was more than just the individuals supporting us. It was the institution supported us."
Part of that commitment could be seen in facilities. Athletic directors often oversaw fund-raising efforts to make sure the best players in the league played in the best venues so they could grow the sport from its often spartan beginnings. Sertich coached in many of the new palaces but he never forgot the places he played in and laughed as he told the stories.
"They had the old Potato Barn in North Dakota, before the first Englestad Arena, and they'd open the back door and the wind blew and there was snirt all over the ice. You know what snirt is, right? Snow and dirt. The ice wouldn't be white. It would be grey.
"You'd play at the old Dee Stadium, down on the river in Houghton, and it was so very cold. For a guy like me, who didn't play a lot, I'd have to take a shower after the game to warm up."
Sertich played at UMD's first home, the Curling Club, which was located on Lake Superior. Fans entered on the main level where the lobby and curling club was located but had to walk upstairs to the arena.
"It was pretty wild playing there," said Sertich. "There was so much smoking in the building you couldn't see across the ice because the air was blue. They would open up the doors and the pigeons would fly in. It was a unique place with goal judges over the nets sitting in a cage. There was chicken wire on the ends but nowhere else and the boards were like nine feet high, so you didn't want to get rubbed out against boards.
"Kids today have no idea what it was like."
But they still have their heroes, just like the kids who watched Huffer at the Curling Club or Mark Pavelich dangle when the Bulldogs moved to the Duluth Arena or Brett Hull boom a slap shot off the wing when the venue was known as the DECC.
Oh, the players that have played in the league. From Mayasich to the Michelettis to the Brotens at Minnesota, from Reggie Morelli to the Hrkac Circus to Cary Eades and Jim Archibald and Gino's bad boys at North Dakota. There was Red Hay at CC in the old Broadmoor followed by Dave Delich and then Brian Swanson when the Tigers moved to the new Broadmoor. Notre Dame had Nyrop and Brownschidle on defense and Coach Lefty Smith could send out Brian Walsh to score in the mid-70's while baseball batting practice or cheerleader practice was going on in the other half of the Joyce Center.
For awhile Wisconsin was Goaltending U with Marc Behrend, Mike Richter, Curtis Joseph and Jim Carey between the pipes and Badger Bob's power play with Craig Norwich, Mark Johnson and Mike Eaves scored about 40 percent of the time in 1977 and made fans sit up every time there was a man advantage. The mention of Ross-Colp-Sturges on the Michigan State power play the year before had the same effect.
Northern Michigan had Gary Emmons in the mid 80's when it first entered the league and Scott Beattie when it won its national title in 1991. John MacInnes brought in big, physical players from the Toronto area in the mid 70's and nobody could stop Mike Zuke and Bob D'Alvise. From Keith Magnuson in the late 60's to 2006 Hobey Baker winner Matt Carle, Denver has always had headliners. Coach Craig Dahl started up the St. Cloud State programs with stars named Hedican, Parrish and Saterdalen and Don Brose and Troy Jutting did the same at Minnesota State with Grant Stevenson and later David Backes.
But for all the great players -- and just look at the all-decade teams elsewhere on this website and then think of your favorites who aren't mentioned -- it might not be the administrators who made the league what it is. Instead, says one long-time friend of college hockey, give the coaches a lot of credit.
"The league has always had legendary coaches; some of the greatest coaches of all time," said David McNab. "You go through the list and they are historical figures in the game, people like John MacInnes and Murray Armstrong. Has there ever been a more impactful duo in the game than Herb and Bob?
"And has there been a more impactful coach than Gino Gasparini. When I played in the '70s, North Dakota was nothing. They had success in the early days, but they had slid badly. Where would North Dakota be without Gino. They needed someone to turn the program around and he stepped up.
"They weren't like Tech and Wisconsin or Minnesota at that time. He ignited the program and it has never gone down. You could say the same thing about George (Gwozdecky at Denver). The program had slid but George showed up. He won two titles and they have been good ever since."
McNab grew up watching college hockey. His dad Max was the general manager of the New Jersey Devils and Washington Capitals and his brother Peter played 954 National Hockey League games after completing his college career at Denver. David was the backup goalie on Wisconsin's national champs in 1977 and scouted for three NHL teams before becoming a charter member of the Anaheim Ducks, where he still vice president, assistant general manager and proud owner of a Stanley Cup ring.
McNab played for Johnson and his brother played for Armstrong. He has seen the college game expand.
"Go around the league and say what was the reason for success? It was a lot of builders," said McNab. "Murray made the program at DU. MacInnes did the same at Tech. Bob Johnson at Wisconsin. Murray and MacInnes are the most influential of all time. I would throw Bob and Gino in there too with how they elevated their program and the coaches that followed them have kept it at a high level."
Minnesotans would argue John Mariucci ought to be in that builder category. He snarled at Armstrong for his use of Canadian players, but he won with mostly in-state players and Maroosh planted the seeds which turned Minnesota into the state of hockey.
"Every year there are great coaches in this league," said McNab.
Just think of all the men who have toted a whistle or chirped at an official from behind the bench. Remember the names of men who added savvy, smarts and spice to the WCHA: the characters like Doug Woog and Glen Sonmor at Minnesota, Amo Bessone at Michigan State, and Badger Bob who told everyone "it's a great day for hockey"; the legends like Heyliger, with the early Michigan teams, MacInnes, Armstrong and Mariucci and the guys at North Dakota, Bob May and Barry Thorndycraft who won national championships in the late 50's and early 60's.
In more modern times, there was Don Lucia, who later won two national titles at Minnesota, and Scotty Owens restored the early years glory at Colorado College; and Brooks become an icon for his "Miracle" win at the 1980 Olympics after achieving success at Minnesota. Jeff Sauer is in the top 10 in all-time victories and won two national crowns at Wisconsin. He is right behind Comley who won 783 games at Northern and Michigan State. Dean Blais is going into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame for his work at North Dakota and then Dave Hakstol took the Fighting Sioux to seven Frozen Fours in his 11 years behind the bench. Gwozdecky won two national titles at Denver but is remembered in Grand Forks more for a stroll he took across the ice in the midst of a heated DU-UND game. Sertich turned UMD into a winner for the first time in the mid-80s and Scott Sandelin succeeded Sertich and led the Bulldogs to three national titles since 2011. Ferris State's Bob Daniels is still going and has legendary status in WCHA circles, Tom Serratore is the only coach Bemidji has had since entering the league in 2010 and Mike Hastings has done nothing but win at Minnesota State, which is looking for its fourth straight WCHA championship this season.
Hastings, Serratore and Daniels are among the eight league coaches who would love to bring one more championship to the WCHA this season and force Commissioner Bill Robertson to find room in the league trophy case. But even if that doesn't occur in this crazy COVID season, fans know the combination of commitment, great players and great coaches have, without a doubt, made the WCHA the best conference in college hockey for the last 70 years.