The Mankato Free Press
---- — When the Minnesota State men's hockey team takes the ice at the Verizon Wireless Center for an exhibition game in less than two weeks, the building finally will feel like home.
Workers at the Mankato arena are putting the finishing touches on a summer renovation that included a new ice-making system and rink floor, as well as new boards and glass. The most visible change will be the seats, as the original red and blue chairs — wrongly colored from the start — have been replaced by purple ones.
Of course, if the seats are full of fans, it really doesn't matter what color the seats are.
On the eve of the college-hockey season, though, it's difficult to foresee what kind of crowds the Mavericks will draw this year.
On the one hand, MSU ought to be a pretty darn-good team. A few preseason prognosticators already have put them in the national top 10 following last year's record-setting season, and in the first USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll released Monday the Mavericks were ranked No. 14. On Wednesday, it's expected that Minnesota State will be named the team to beat in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, the favorite to win the MacNaughton Cup.
But, oh, that conference. That's the other hand.
This is the year the big conference shakeup finally takes effect. The once-great WCHA has been blown up and is no longer considered the best conference in college hockey. Gone are the well known power programs like Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota, as well as MSU's in-state rivals St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth. They've been replaced with less-familiar schools like Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Bowling Green and others.
But how much should the conference matter, really?
For too long, Minnesota State has relied on its WCHA affiliation for recruiting and selling tickets. Now, the focus finally has to be on its own product and its own standards. Is the expectation to be simply competitive, as it so often was in the old conference? Or is it to be a consistent, 20-win team that expects to be playing deep into March?
Despite being a Division I sport, it can learn a lot from its Division II brothers and sisters. Minnesota State already has proven in basketball and football that conference affiliation does not matter.
Sure, folks look fondly at the rivalries and the top-to-bottom quality of the old North Central Conference days. But it's been as a member of the Northern Sun that those program have had their best teams and best seasons, competing on the national stage.
Those teams have defined themselves by who they are, not by who they play.
Hockey should be no different.
In coach Mike Hastings' first season, Minnesota State made its move, winning 24 games and getting to the national tournament for the first time in a decade. Now the Verizon's getting cleaned up, and there remains hope for future improvements to the facility.
The Mavericks have a team this season that would be good in any conference. But this isn't about looking good for the schools that jilted them and left them behind.
It's about being the showcase team at the civic center. It's about raising the bar and leaving it high.
Shane Frederick is a Free Press staff writer. Read his blog at mankatofreepresshockey.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @puckato.