By Shane Frederick
---- — MANKATO — The coaches in the new-look Western Collegiate Hockey Association are still getting to know each other, but they sure seem so happy together right now.
During a preseason conference call Wednesday, the coaches said the league of teams leftover after the formation of the Big Ten and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference will be a hard, competitive one with good players, veteran coaches and intriguing rivalries.
"It's exceptionally close," Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle said. "That's the beauty of the league. There are so many like programs competing against each other, and that's going to be healthy for this league.
"Any team can win a championship, and that was not necessarily the case in the past."
The conference is made up of the four remaining members of the WCHA, five teams from the now-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association, and a formerly independent program.
Minnesota State is the overwhelming choice to win the conference. However, the coaches said they had to do a lot of extra research to learn about many of their new peers and their players in order to cast ballots for preseason awards.
Some of the coaches, including MSU's Mike Hastings and Michigan Tech's Mel Pearson, served as assistants with CCHA teams in the past, but there hasn't been much crossover otherwise.
Minnesota State has never played Lake Superior State or Northern Michigan. The last time the Mavericks played Ferris State was the 1998-99 season, and the last time they played Alaska was in 1994-95. They have played just two games against Bowling Green.
"Some of the coaches in the CCHA didn't know the WCHA and vice versa," Pearson said. "It's going to take a year or two."
Lake Superior State coach Jim Roque said another challenge will be to educate fans about the different teams that will be coming to the rink.
On the other hand, there are some rivalries that will take on a whole new meaning. With Northern Michigan and Lake Superior State joining Michigan Tech in the WCHA, all three of Michigan's Upper Peninsula programs are now all in the same conference for the first time. For years, Alaska and Alaska Anchorage have played each other in nonconference series; now important points are on the line.
As Division I programs, Minnesota State and Bemidji State were in different conferences until the last three seasons. Now, they're the only two Minnesota teams in the WCHA.
"The league was built on rivalries, and we'll establish some new rivalries," Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore said. "The rivalry we have with Mankato is good, and it's only going to get better."
Ferris State's Bob Daniels said he likes the geographical makeup of the WCHA with towns like Mankato; Houghton, Mich., and his own Big Rapids, Mich., to name a few.
"Hockey is in the fabric of the universities as well as the communities," he said. "It brings the campus and the community together. It's a league where hockey is valued in the community as well as on campus."