By Shane Frederick firstname.lastname@example.org
The Mankato Free Press
---- — Two hundred seventy-five miles.
If there's a figure that illustrates just how different the Western Collegiate Hockey Association will be this season, that number — that distance — might be it.
The Minnesota State men's hockey team traveled that far on Thursday, busing from Mankato to Bemdji for its conference-opening series against Bemidji State. The two teams will play tonight and Saturday at the Sanford Center. It will be the shortest road trip for the Mavericks in conference play this season.
In previous years, the Bemidji trip ranked fourth on the distance list, behind travel to play Minnesota, St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth. But then college hockey's conference shakeup took place, leaving a very different-looking WCHA after the Big Ten and National Collegiate Hockey Conference formed.
"It's definitely weird," Mavericks junior Zach Palmquist said, "especially with Minnesota an hour away and not seeing them in conference play. There's a little more travel, and we'll get adapted to that. But we're definitely excited to get the conference schedule going."
The Mavericks will play the Gophers in a nonconference series on Nov. 15-16 and return to the Twin Cities in January for the North Star College Cup tournament with Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State and Minnesota.
But the WCHA schedule this season will consist of long trips to Bowling Green, Ohio (680 miles); Huntsville, Alabama (950 miles); Marquette, Mich. (480 miles) and Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. (620 miles), not to mention back-to-back series in Alaska in early January against Anchorage and Fairbanks.
When they don't fly, the Mavericks will employ a sleeper bus for the long road trips.
"Everyone came from junior hockey and is used to long bus rides like that," junior forward Chase Grant said. "I don't think that will be a big factor for us. They treat us well on the road."
The next-closest WCHA school after Bemidji is Michigan Tech in Houghton, Mich., which is 450 miles away. The Mavericks don't play there this season. That trip once ranked last among Minnesota State's eight in-conference bus trips behind Omaha, Neb.; Madison, Wis.; and Grand Forks, N.D. The traveled by plane for games in Colorado and Denver.
Besides the relatively short trip, opening the conference schedule at Bemidji State might be a good place to start because the Beavers are an opponent the Mavericks are familiar with, unlike, say, Bowling Green, which comes to Mankato next week.
"We kind of know what Bemidji's all about," Palmquist said. "We've played them a lot, and I think the familiarity is definitely good for us. But, like any other team, you have to go out and try to get four points on the weekend. That doesn't change."
The Mavericks were idle last weekend after starting the season 2-2-0. They were swept on the road at Providence to open the season and then swept Connecticut at home on Oct. 18-19.
"We just need to play again," coach Mike Hastings said. "The players, this time of year, want to play. Our body of work is very lean so far. We had a good home series and a not-so-good road trip. Now we go on the road again."