WCHA Press Releases

Bigger and Better
Facilities arms race fueled the WCHA's continued prominence in the 1990s

By Brad Schlossman

Broadmoor World Arena hosted the first 10 NCAA men's hockey national semifinals and championship games – which later became known as the Frozen Four – from 1948-1957.

It was perhaps the first venue to become synonymous with college hockey.

During the regular season, Broadmoor World Arena served as home to Colorado College for decades.

But in 1993, the Broadmoor Hotel announced plans to close the ice arena and construct a new facility that included hotel rooms and meeting space.

It was the end of an era for the small, compact venue. The Tigers were nomads for a couple of years, playing at Air Force's Cadet Ice Arena.

Then, in 1998, Colorado College's new home, World Arena, opened.

It sat more than 7,000 fans, nearly twice the capacity of the old Broadmoor World Arena. It had much more modern amenities. And the ice was Olympic-sized, 100 feet wide, instead of the traditional NHL-sized sheet, which is 85 feet wide.

Colorado College wasn't the only team to do this.

Colorado College's move from an old classic into a brand-new venue was one of the most defining traits of the 1990s for the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

The opening of the new Mariucci Arena in 1993 spurred a facilities arms race in the WCHA that saw five new buildings open around the league in the 1990s and a sixth debut in 2001.

By the end of the decade, there were 10 teams in the league. Between the 1989-90 season until the turn of the century, more than half of the WCHA's teams opened new rinks.

St. Cloud State, which joined the league during the decade, moved into the National Hockey Center during the 1989-90 season. Minnesota moved into the new Mariucci Arena in 1993. Minnesota State, which also joined the WCHA during the decade, opened the Mankato Civic Center in 1995. Denver moved into Magness Arena in 1996. Colorado College's World Arena opened in 1998. And Wisconsin's Kohl Center opened in 1998.

North Dakota also began the planning process for building the new Ralph Engelstad Arena, which opened in 2001.

The new arenas offered larger capacities and modern amenities to help bring more fans to games. During the 1990s, the WCHA surpassed the one million mark in total home attendance for the first time.

"The 90s became an arms race in college hockey and it was one of the reasons the WCHA became as strong as it was," former Colorado College and Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said. "Mariucci was built in the early 90s, and that was the Taj Mahal. That was followed by CC, the Kohl Center, Magness Arena … I'm sure Ralph Engelstad was looking around and saying, 'We're not going to get trumped by all these programs, we're going to build our own building.' That raised the bar even more.

"I don't think it's any coincidence all the success the teams had played into the facilities. Before that time, I'm not sure how facilities played into kids' decisions (on where to attend college). Everyone had the same. After all of the new facilities were built, it made a huge difference in our sport. The WCHA's run of the 2000s, was propelled by the building boom of the 90s."

It also launched an era of Olympic-sized rinks taking over the WCHA.

By the end of the decade, more than half of the league's teams played on Olympic-sized sheets of ice: Minnesota, Alaska Anchorage, Colorado College, St. Cloud State, Minnesota State and Wisconsin. Technically, Wisconsin's Kohl Center was three feet shy of 100, but it was close enough that most considered it an Olympic sheet.

The only WCHA arena built in the 1990s to have an NHL-sized sheet was Denver's Magness Arena.

The decade featured a couple of resurgent programs, too.

Colorado College, under Lucia, shot back to prominence.

In 1992-93, Colorado College finished dead last in the league standings with a 6-26 record.

Colorado College became the first school in WCHA history to win three consecutive regular season championships when the Tigers completed the MacNaughton Cup hat trick in 1996-97. CC remains the only WCHA program to win three straight outright league regular season titles.

The Tigers hired Lucia that offseason, and he took them from worst-to-first. In 1993-94, Colorado College's final season in Broadmoor World Arena, it went 18-9-5, finishing one point ahead of Minnesota to win the MacNaughton Cup. It was Colorado College's first WCHA title since 1957.

"It was a magical year, because it was the last year of the Broadmoor, and there was a lot of talk about whether CC was going to have a program," Lucia said. "If we didn't have a good year, they might have dropped the program. That forced their hand to get World Arena built.

"Scott Owens was the architect in recruiting. Scott had a knack for putting a team together. I was fortunate to walk into a situation where we had a lot of young talent. They just hadn't gotten over the hump yet. It was a really tight league that year. There wasn't much difference from top to bottom. We managed to stay ahead and win the league that year."

The Tigers, however, were left out of the NCAA tournament that year, prompting the short-lived 'CC rule,' where the NCAA began giving automatic bids to both the regular-season and tournament championship of each league.

Colorado College went on to win three consecutive MacNaughton Cups, running away with the league title in 1994-95 (22-9-1, seven points ahead of Denver and Wisconsin) and 1995-96 (26-2-4, 12 points ahead of Minnesota).

It marked the first time in WCHA history that a team won the regular-season title in three-straight years.

But it didn't take long for it to happen again.

North Dakota, which won three NCAA national championships in the 1980s under coach Gino Gasparini, fell on hard times at the start of the 1990s.

In 1994, North Dakota turned to former assistant coach Dean Blais, who played at Minnesota.

Wisconsin opened the decade by capturing the NCAA championship in 1990, the first of three national titles for WCHA programs in the 90s.

Blais recruited to the philosophy of "speed kills," and loaded up on smaller, dynamic players like Jason Blake, David and Kevin Hoogsteen, Curtis Murphy and Jeff and Jay Panzer.

They turned North Dakota into a high-flying offensive team and it immediately returned to prominence.

North Dakota shared the MacNaughton Cup with Minnesota in 1996-97, then won it outright in 1997-98 and 1998-99, despite not having many NHL prospects outside of Blake.

"It was never talked about," Hoogsteen said of going to the NHL. "We never cared about that. One reason that team was so successful is that we never got caught up in what's next. When I played for UND for four years, that was my NHL. That was my dream. Playing for North Dakota in front of those fans, that was it for me. I didn't think about money."

The WCHA also cemented Minnesota as the center of the league by adding St. Cloud State in 1990 and Minnesota State in 1999.

These moves, perhaps, had the most significant impact on the league's postseason tournament.

In 1993, the league invited Alaska Anchorage to participate in the playoffs one year before it was set to enter the conference as a full-time member. That put the WCHA at 10 teams for the playoffs. All teams played a best-of-three first-round series with the five winners going to an event the WCHA began calling the Final Five.

The first Final Five, held in St. Paul's Civic Center, featured Northern Michigan, Michigan Tech, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Minnesota Duluth. The Gophers beat Northern Michigan 5-3 in the championship with Minnesota's Travis Richards winning MVP.

The following year, the Final Five was held in Milwaukee's Bradley Center for the first time. It set an attendance record of 61,367.

The Final Five alternated between those two locations until 1999, when it was held at the Target Center in Minneapolis.

Northern Michigan won one of the wildest national championship games in Frozen Four history when the Wildcats took down Boston University, 8-7, in 1991 at the St. Paul Civic Center.

The WCHA had three NCAA national championship-winning teams in the 1990s. All three won the MacNaughton Cup as regular-season champions and the Broadmoor Trophy as playoff champions before winning the Frozen Four.

It started with Wisconsin winning its third championship in 10 years in 1990.

Led by WCHA MVP Gary Shuchuk, NCAA Most Outstanding Player Chris Tancill, forward John Byce, defenseman Sean Hill and goaltender Duane Derksen, the Badgers took out Maine in a quarterfinal series, topped Boston College 2-1 in the semifinals and hammered Colgate 7-3 in the championship game in Detroit's Joe Louis Arena.

Byce had a hat trick in the title game. Defenseman Rob Andriga had a goal and two assists in helping coach Jeff Sauer win a second national title.

The following year produced one of the NCAA's wildest national championship games.

Northern Michigan beat Boston University 8-7 in triple overtime – the second-longest national title game of all time – at the St. Paul Civic Center.

The Wildcats led Boston University by three goals with eight minutes to go in the third period, but the Terriers rallied with goals by three future NHLers – Tony Amonte with 7:36 to go, Shawn McEachern with 5:09 to go and Joe Sacco with just 39 seconds left.

Darryl Plandowski finished off a feed from Mark Beaufait at 1:57 of the third overtime.

"Losing that would have been with us the rest of our lives, and yet in overtime you don't think about how you might blow it," Northern Michigan captain Brad Werenka told Sports Illustrated after the game. "All you think about is winning."

Northern Michigan, coached by Rick Comley, finished the season on a 26-game unbeaten streak.

Although Michigan was the heavy favorite to win the 1997 NCAA national championship, North Dakota came away from Milwaukee's Bradley Center with the prize.

North Dakota beat Cornell 6-2 in the regional final and knocked out Colorado College by that exact score before taking out Boston University, which stunned Michigan in the semis.

The Terriers led North Dakota 2-0 after the first period on goals by Peter Donatelli and Chris Drury, but North Dakota blew the game open in the second period with five goals.

In the span of just over five minutes, Murphy, David Hoogsten and Matt Henderson scored to put North Dakota ahead. Hoogsteen and Henderson scored again later in the period as goalie Aaron Schweitzer backstopped North Dakota to its first national title in 10 years.

Henderson, who arrived at UND as a walk-on, was named the Most Outstanding Player.

The WCHA's prominence on the national stage was not as large as previous years.

The early 90s saw the WCHA add two new members in St. Cloud State and Alaska Anchorage.

The WCHA had just three NCAA national champions, the league's lowest to date (it had seven in the 1950s, nine in the 1960s, six in the 1970s and five in the 1980s).

It had two Hobey Baker Award winners after having five in the 1980s – Minnesota Duluth's Chris Marinucci and Minnesota's Brian Bonin, who also won the league's player of the year award twice.

But that was about to change.

The league had an arsenal of new buildings, a growing fan base and a big stage set for a league where top recruits wanted to play.

"I don't think there's any question (the new buildings grew fan bases)," Lucia said. "When we moved into World Arena, we were getting 7,000 fans a game. We were good, and I think it helps when you're winning, but it's also a shiny, new object.

"In the '90s, there was no NHL in Minnesota. The North Stars moved. Mariucci was built. For a decade, the Gophers had no competition. It was Gopher hockey on TV all winter. It was much like an NHL franchise before the Wild came. They had an opportunity to build their brand, build a fan base. And it wasn't just the Gopher fan base, it was a college hockey fan base. St. Cloud State got bigger. Mankato started. That all started to fuel all those fans that came out to games."