By Shane Frederick
The decision wasn't an easy one, but, in the end, it was the right one. And it was hard for anyone to argue.
Following the breakup of the WCHA and conference realignment in 2013, the so-called "new" league tried to maintain the prestigious Final Five, which had been so successful for many years, especially 2001—2013 when it called St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center its permanent home.
"Honestly, the WCHA Final Five was one of the greatest hockey events in the world," Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore said.
But the league found out that it wasn't going to be able to fill the X with smaller schools from smaller towns with smaller fan bases from a wider geographical footprint. The WCHA first took the Final Five to Grand Rapids, Mich., and had championship weekends at Van Andel Arena there in 2014 and 2016 sandwiched around a final Final Five at the X in 2015.
Those tournaments indeed had their share of memorable moments, whether it was Alaska Anchorage's surprising trip to the semifinals in '14 when it took MacNaughton Cup champ Ferris State to overtime, or Brad McClure's natural hat trick in the '15 title game that, along with his five-goal, six-point weekend, gave Minnesota State the Broadmoor Trophy or the penalty shot by Ferris State's Gerald Mayhew that ended up as the game-winning goal in the '16 championship game.
However, the WCHA needed to make a sound business decision, and that was to return to home rinks for the league playoffs, leaving the neutral sites and awarding its top teams the chance to host the semifinals and finals. The tournament would be a three-round playoff, with two rounds of best-of-three series followed by a single, winner-take-all championship for the Broadmoor, later the Jeff Sauer Trophy.
"Now you get to the playoffs and what you're playing for the entire year has meaning," Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings said. "You get to have the opportunity to play in front of your home crowd at the most important time of the year."
For three seasons (before COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 playoffs after the quarterfinals), there could not have been more drama in the WCHA playoffs.
In 2017, Michigan Tech hosted the championship game after fourth-seeded Bowling Green upset Bemidji State, the MacNaughton Cup winner, with a sweep in the semifinals. The second-seeded Huskies had gotten by Minnesota State in a three-game semifinal series. Tech dazzled the sellout crowd of 4,466 at MacInnes Student Ice Center, taking a 2-0 lead with two goals in the second period. But the Falcons came back to tie the game with a pair of goals just 24 seconds apart in the third. The game went to one overtime and then a second OT before Tech's Shane Hanna scored at 6:35 for the thrilling victory.
The next season, Tech was back in the final after upsetting Minnesota State in three games at Mankato. The Huskies had to face their archrival, Northern Michigan. It was another sellout crowd, with 4,260 fans packing Marquette's Berry Events Center. It was a tight game. The shots were even at 21 apiece. Tech's Greyson Reitmeier scored a second-period goal and that was it until Joel L'Esperance's empty-netter in the final minute. Patrick Munson got the shutout in goal, and Tech had back-to-back titles.
The 2019 final might forever be known as the "Miracle in Mankato." Taking on regular-season champion Minnesota State, visiting Bowling Green silenced the Verizon Center's normally rowdy standing-room-only crowd of 5,327 by jumping out to a 2-0 lead and holding the high-scoring Mavericks at bay. The Falcons were seemingly on their way to their first WCHA championship of any kind. With more than three minutes remaining, MSU coach Mike Hastings pulled goalie Dryden McKay for an extra attacker, and the Mavericks found a way to scored twice in the final two minutes, getting goals from Jake Jarmeko and Connor Mackey to wake up their fans and force overtime. Minnesota State ended up winning in OT on a Nick Rivera goal just 97 seconds in.
"Those are memories," Hastings said.
Would those games have been more thrilling at a jam-packed Xcel Energy Center with 18,000 fans?
"I would love to have a neutral-site Final Five like we always had," Serratore said. "But the cold, hard reality was that it just couldn't happen anymore. We couldn't swing it. So what do you have to do is you have to find what's the best way of being successful."
The league found a way to that, but the show put on by its teams made it worthwhile to the home and traveling away fans who filled their campus and city arenas for games they won't soon forget.
"That was a good decision," Hastings said, "because you brought back the community, you brought back the home-field advantage, you brought back environment."