The Mankato Free Press
---- — On Friday, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association announced that commissioner Bruce McLeod will be retiring following this, his 20th, season on the job.
While the news itself came as no big surprise (McLeod, 62, began hinting of his impending retirement as far back as April), it was released rather quietly, curiously late in the afternoon on the Friday before the holidays.
Not all that long ago, the announcement would have drawn tributes from the Twin Cities to Colorado to Madison and from Grand Forks to Duluth to St. Cloud.
Indeed, the McLeod era included perhaps the greatest period of growth the league has seen.
Over that time, Minnesota State found a Division I home, a successful companion women’s conference was formed and, thanks to the construction of the Minnesota Wild’s Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, the Final Five became the most lucrative and well-attended conference tournaments in the country.
WCHA teams have won eight national championships and have been to the Frozen Four 23 times since McLeod took the reins from the legendary Otto Breitenbach. From 2002 to 2006, WCHA teams won five straight titles. In 2005, all four teams in the Frozen Four in Columbus, Ohio, were from the league.
A former player and unabashed fan of the sport, McLeod assisted in the forming of the College Hockey America conference for Bemidji State, Alabama Huntsville and other independents. The group even named its tournament trophy after him. When that conference shriveled and died, the WCHA saved Bemidji and also coaxed Nebraska Omaha over from the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
But it was also under McLeod’s watch that the league fell apart in recent years.
Hockey was going the way of other college sports, most notably football, with power programs flexing their muscles, grabbing as much cash as possible and leaving the little guys to fight for the scraps.
The best interests of college hockey — one of the charming aspects of the sport that appealed to its small but loyal fan base — was no longer the priority. And while the receipts looked good, the WCHA’s old-school operations and one-for-all, all-for-one approach no longer cut it for some schools.
There was seemingly little that could be done about the formation of the Big Ten once Penn State added hockey, and the creation of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference was a “really sneaky back-door deal,” by a renegade group, according to some critics. But McLeod simply didn’t have the power to keep the conference together amid that changing landscape.
Eight of 12 teams departed the WCHA, and folks are still getting used to the sport’s realignment this season.
So instead of riding off into the sunset, McLeod has spent his final years rebuilding the WCHA, if not keeping it alive.
McLeod will retire from a conference that looks completely different than the one he played in and the one he took charge of in 1994.
And despite the great successes of the early 2000s, it might be that league of leftovers that people remember.
Shane Frederick is a Free Press staff writer. Read his blog at mankatofreepresshockey.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @puckato.