The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Sports

March 19, 2013

WCHA shakeup puts spotlight on Final Five

MANKATO — Minnesota State won’t necessarily be carrying the banner of the new Western Collegiate Hockey Association at this weekend’s Final Five in St. Paul, but it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the Mavericks are the only team in the six-team tournament that will remain in the conference beyond the current season.

“The whole landscape of college hockey is changing,” MSU coach Mike Hastings said during a conference call involving the Final Five coaches Tuesday. “But we’re trying to keep our young men and our program in the now. We’re looking forward to this weekend.”

After season’s end, eight of the WCHA’s 12 teams will leave for two new leagues, the Big Ten and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

A year from now, the Big Ten will be playing its championship weekend at the Xcel Energy Center, while the NCHC will be at Target Center in Minneapolis.

What remains of the WCHA, including MSU, and its new members from the soon-to-be-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association as well as Alabama Huntsville, appear to be set to play in Grand Rapids, Mich., while returning to St. Paul in 2015.

That means this year’s Final Five — which begins with the Mavericks playing Wisconsin at 2:07 p.m. Thursday — marks the end of an era.

“This event is (so) special,” said St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko, whose team will join the NCHC. “Fans, players and parents truly embrace the weekend. To know we were not going to have that opportunity again, we wanted to make sure we were there in the last year.”

According to WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod, a record number of ticket packages have been sold for this year, and the league has already surpassed its record income from the event set in 2007.

“There’s no better hockey,” McLeod said.

Last year’s six games drew 73,002 fans, while the 2007 tournament drew 88,900, including a record 19,463 for the championship game between North Dakota and Minnesota.

“It’s a destination for fans whether their team is in it or not,” said Don Lucia, coach of Big Ten-bound Minnesota. “They want to be part of it.”

Scott Owens, coach of WCHA charter member Colorado College said “there’s a little sense of sadness,” this year, as that school gets its last shot at the Broadmoor Trophy. Meanwhile, North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol talked about how his team’s fans have “embraced the tournament,” with as many as 10,000 of them hitting the streets of St. Paul and helping fill the X every year. Both of those teams will be in the NCHC next year, while Wisconsin will be going to the Big Ten.

Minnesota State hasn’t had those same experiences, but hopes to get a good following this weekend.

“I think we earned it,” Hastings said. “As with everybody down here you have to earn it to be there. ... There is a buzz (around Mankato). The Final Five and what the WCHA stands for is one of those reasons.”

The Mavericks have played in the Final Five twice since joining the WCHA as a full-time member in 1999 but haven’t been there since 2003. They were glad to get back there before the conference shakeup.

“We’re excited to be part of the Final Five,” Hastings said. “It’s such a special event. We have the opportunity to go and compete. We feel very blessed and are looking forward to it.”

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