By Brad Schlossman
The Western Collegiate Hockey Association had 10 teams in its league from 1971-1981.
So, when the league decided to add Alaska Anchorage -- first as an affiliate member for the 1992-93 season, then as full-time member beginning in the fall of 1993 -- it was not a foreign concept.
But the league decided to try something new.
In the 1970s and 1980s, it only allowed eight teams into its postseason tournament. The ninth- and 10th-place teams were not invited to the playoffs.
Beginning with the 1992-93 season, the WCHA decided every team would make the postseason tournament.
They would play a best-of-three series in the first round at the site of the higher seed.
Then, the five winners would go to one centralized location to finish out the tournament in a single-elimination event called the WCHA Final Five.
League officials couldn't have known at the time exactly how important that decision would turn out.
Over the course of the next two decades, the WCHA Final Five grew into college hockey's premier event.
It started by alternating between Milwaukee's Bradley Center and the St. Paul Civic Center, eventually moving to the Xcel Energy Center in 2001. Crowds continued to grow. Attendance records were shattered.
"It became a destination weekend every March," said Don Lucia, who coached both Colorado College and Minnesota. "People said, 'Forget everything else, we're going to go watch five great games.'
"It wasn't that expensive and the atmosphere was such that it was better than the national tournament."
In Year 2 of the Final Five setup (1994), the event moved to Milwaukee for the first time and total attendance eclipsed 60,000 for the first time in league history.
"Milwaukee was a good place to play and a good draw," Lucia said. "Wisconsin had a better following for hockey in the 1990s. Hockey was the main sport at Wisconsin. Basketball wasn't very good back then. Football wasn't any good until Barry Alvarez. Alvarez and Dick Bennett propelled football and basketball.
"Then, people started spending money going to Rose Bowls and the NCAA basketball tournament and that had an impact on Wisconsin."
There were other items fueling the Final Five.
The games were excellent.
In 1994, 1995 and 1997, the championship game went to overtime. Minnesota beat St. Cloud State in 1994; Wisconsin beat Colorado College in 1995; and North Dakota beat Minnesota in 1997.
In 1998 and 1999, the finals were one-goal games.
The WCHA also returned to prominence at the national level.
The WCHA did not have an NCAA national champion for five consecutive years from 1992-96. It was the longest drought in league history.
But UND ended that with winning it in 1997.
"I think the success of good teams at the national level helped," Lucia said. "We (Colorado College) played for the national title in 1996. North Dakota won it in 1997 and 2000. More teams were getting into the NCAA tournament and having success.
"You started to see the benefit of the new facilities and the national recruiting that went on and how many good players started funneling into the WCHA from across North America."
Every program outside of Alaska Anchorage got a taste of the Final Five during the 1990s, too. The schools with the largest fan bases -- Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota -- became fixtures, helping drive attendance.
Minnesota made it every year but 1998. Wisconsin made it every year but 1997 and 1999. North Dakota made it in 1995, 1996, 1997 and 1999.
"We were alternating between Milwaukee and St. Paul and we'd get pretty much 12,000, 13,000 or 14,00 people," Lucia said. "It was a really good tournament, whether it was in Milwaukee or St. Paul."
In 2001, it moved to the new Xcel Energy Center and continually broke its own attendance records and outdrew NCAA Frozen Four games.
"Once it settled into St. Paul," Lucia said, "it became the event in college hockey."