By Shane Frederick
Over the course of its history, the WCHA has featured plenty of fierce, fun rivalries that made a seemingly minor sport (at least compared to college football and basketball) a major passion among its fans. Minnesota and Wisconsin. Denver and Colorado College. North Dakota and, well, just about everybody!
Those rivalries defined the conference, even as it underwent a few membership changes over its first six decades.
But a conference shake-up that rocked nearly all of college hockey in 2013 and created a dramatically different-looking WCHA out of the ashes left many wondering if any of the new rivalries could compare to what the league had seen in previous years.
Any fears about conference realignment's impact on those rivalries were quelled on the weekend of Jan. 17-18, 2014 in Mankato, Minn., when Ferris State rolled into town to play Minnesota State.
A year earlier, the teams were in separate leagues — Minnesota State in the WCHA and Ferris State in the CCHA — and they hadn't played each other in 15 seasons. But the visiting Bulldogs were the No. 2 team in the country, and Mavericks fans filled the arena to see a battle for the top of the conference standings.
And a battle they saw. The rough-and-tumble series included a crowd-pleasing, old-time hockey fight and ended with an MSU sweep and a tight championship chase that would last until the final week of the regular season.
"The first big rivalry was Ferris State and Mankato," Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore said. "Those two teams, they battled hard, and they had great, competitive games, and they established the rivalry real early on."
Ferris State went on to win the MacNaughton Cup that season as the WCHA's regular-season champion, holding off the Mavericks by a point, but Minnesota State won the Broadmoor Trophy as the playoff champ and defeated the Bulldogs in the final (Ferris State would avenge that loss to MSU two years later.)
With Ferris State and Minnesota State holding that prestigious hardware for the next year, it was clear that the WCHA was in a new, unfamiliar era.
The 2010s were indeed an era of change for the WCHA, and that change actually started well before major realignment. The decade began with the conference expanding to 12 teams, as it brought in Bemidji State and Omaha to join a powerhouse lineup for the 2010-11 season.
"From 2010 to 2020, there was just change, and that was something that the league hadn't really experienced for a long time," Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings said.
The 2010-11 season saw a mighty North Dakota team, led by All-Americans Matt Frattin and Chay Genoway, win both the MacNaughton Cup and the Broadmoor Trophy. The latter was won in dramatic fashion when Matt Frattin scored in double-overtime of the Final Five championship game against rival Denver at the Xcel Energy Center.
North Dakota returned to St. Paul three weeks later for the NCAA Frozen Four and a shot at a national championship. But it was another WCHA team that had the overtime magic that weekend. Inspired, perhaps, by an upset overtime loss to 10th-place Bemidji State in the Final Five quarterfinals, Minnesota Duluth went on an impressive run that ended with Kyle Schmidt's goal in overtime against Michigan. It was the first national championship for the Bulldogs and the 37th (and, so far, last) for the WCHA.
The following season, Minnesota won the first of back-to-back MacNaughton Cups (the Gophers shared the trophy with St. Cloud State in 2013), and North Dakota captured its third straight Final Five title. Meanwhile, the WCHA picked up two more Hobey Baker Awards to up its total to 16 in 33 years, with Minnesota Duluth's Jack Connelly getting named the nation's best player in 2012 and St. Cloud State's Drew LeBlanc taking the honor in 2013. It looked like the WCHA was well on its way to another historic decade.
However, after Wisconsin defeated Colorado College in the championship game of the 2013 Final Five, the conference would never be the same.
In the summer of 2013, Minnesota and Wisconsin departed the WCHA as the Big Ten added hockey as a conference sport. Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota Duluth, Omaha, Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State followed them out the door for another new conference.
The remaining WCHA teams —Alaska Anchorage, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech and Minnesota State — took on the leftovers from the CCHA, which was going belly-up after losing most of its membership in the shakeup. Alaska Fairbanks, Bowling Green, Ferris State and Lake Superior State joined the WCHA, and Northern Michigan returned to the conference after 16 years away. The league was able to restart as a 10-team conference when it admitted previously independent Alabama Huntsville to the group.
"There was such consistency year in and year out of what made up what I think was the premier conference in the country," said Hastings, who had served as an assistant coach at Omaha and Minnesota before taking over the Mavericks in 2012. "I think there was some uncertainty going forward."
But the so-called "new" WCHA turned out to be as competitive as the old one, not only with the new rivalries but with some new commitments from programs that had been wallowing a bit in their old conferences.
Coaching changes at Minnesota State, Bowling Green and Michigan Tech, a beautiful new arena in Bemidji and plans for fixes at several other rinks all seemed to give a boost to the WCHA's teams.
"It was: What are we going to do with this opportunity?" Hastings said. "How do we capitalize on change, whether it's good or bad? How do we capitalize on the opportunity that we have in front of us? And that's something that I think ourselves, Tech, Bemidji, Bowling Green have done because there isn't one of them that hasn't reinvested in that journey."
Minnesota State became the conference's new power, winning six MacNaughton Cups (2015, '16, '18, '19, '20, '21) and three playoff championships (2014, '15, '19) as the 2021 postseason moves into its final weekend, with a fine collection of All-Americans, including high-scoring forwards Matt Leitner, C.J. Suess and Marc Michaelis; do-it-all defensemen Zach Palmquist, Daniel Brickley and Connor Mackey and record-setting goaltender Dryden McKay. Hastings was named WCHA Coach of the Year four times, including his first season in the "old" WCHA and was national coach of the year in 2015 after taking the Mavericks into the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed.
Michigan Tech, the great program of the 1960s and '70s, experienced a renaissance in the post-realignment era. In 2015, led by All-American forward Tanner Kero, the Huskies qualified for the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1981, and in 2016, with another All-American, Alex Petan, leading the way, they shared the league's regular-season championship with MSU, bringing the fabled MacNaughton Cup back to its hometown of Houghton, Mich., for the first time in 40 years. Tech then won back-to-back conference playoff titles in 2017 and 2018.
All-American goalie Michael Bitzer all but carried Bemidji State to its first WCHA regular-season championship in 2017, leading the Beavers on a 13-game unbeaten streak (12-0-1) to start their conference schedule.
"That was a unique year," said Serratore, a two-time WCHA Coach of the Year. "We started out of the gates with a bang, and we were playing very good hockey. And Mike Bitzer was just dialed in as a goalie, just dialed in. He was phenomenal."
Bowling Green had a bit of tough luck, finishing no lower than fourth place in the WCHA's final regular-season standings but never winning a championship and losing two playoff title games — both in heartbreaking fashion in overtime, once to Michigan Tech (in double-OT on a Shane Hanna goal) and once to Minnesota State (on a Nick Rivera goal after a late third-period comeback by the Mavericks).
All-American defenseman Alec Rauhauser was a big part of the Falcons' resurgence, while Northern Michigan also started to make a splash, hiring former Minnesota Gophers hero Grant Potulny as head coach in 2017 and getting great performances from the likes of forward Troy Loggins, defenseman Philip Beaulieu and goalie Atte Tolvanen, the latter of whom, in 2017, strung together five consecutive shutouts — a WCHA-record 339 minutes, 5 seconds.
The end of the 2010s saw more changes, as the league, like the rest of the world, coped with a global pandemic. COVID-19 shut down the 2019-20 season prior to the conference tournament semifinals and not only delayed the start of the following season but caused the two Alaska teams to opt out of the season. And there are questions about the future of the WCHA, as seven teams will be leaving the league for another conference following 2020-21.
"It was a decade of change with a lot of moving parts that went on the last 10 years," Serratore said. "I also think the brand of the WCHA is a strong brand. You take a look at each decade, the phenomenal players, the phenomenal coaches, the fan bases, the facilities, you know, all those things. You look at that and you say, 'Holy moly, what a first-class league, what a prestigious, prestigious league."