The Free Press, Mankato, MN

June 16, 2013

WCHA, Minnesota State preparing for NEW-LOOK LEAGUE

Conference seeking league-wide broadcast package

By Shane Frederick
sfrederick@mankatofreepress.com

---- — Bruce McLeod didn't expect to be in this position in 2013.

With a little more than one year left on his contract with the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, the 66-year-old conference commissioner is overseeing an almost completely revamped league, one that's hardly recognizable to the one he's led for the last 19 seasons.

"It seems like with each passing week and month it gets better for me," McLeod said in a phone interview from his Denver office on Thursday. "I feel better about where the league is going; it's getting more positive than ever."

In a little more than three months, the college hockey season will begin. It will be the epoch of a new era within the sport, one with two new major conferences, the death of another and an extreme makeover of McLeod's WCHA. The WCHA will have 10 teams, including Minnesota State. Gone are most of the conference's so-called power programs —Minnesota and Wisconsin to the Big Ten hockey conference and North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State and Nebraska Omaha to the newly formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

Joining Minnesota State will be WCHA leftovers Bemidji State, Michigan Tech and Alaska Anchorage as well as Alabama Huntsville and the remnants of the now-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association — Alaska (Fairbanks), Northern Michigan, Lake Superior State, Ferris State and Bowling Green — after six of that league's other programs scattered to three other conferences.

The big breakup began two years ago, and some hard feelings remain. But, for the most part, officials of the WCHA and its members have moved on as they prepare for the new era and try to promote what they believe remains a successful brand.

"It's taken awhile, but the 10 (university presidents) and I are getting things in order," McLeod said. "We've had to work through some things and get on the same page."

A week ago, McLeod, the presidents — including Minnesota State's Richard Davenport, who was re-elected as chair of the WCHA's Presidents Council — and other school representatives met in Bemidji for two days.

Discussions included future budgets and staffing and promotion of next season's Final Five championship weekend in Grand Rapids, Mich. But the major focus was a league-wide media package that would make all of the teams' games available online. Although a deal is still in the proposal stage, the package, reportedly a service of Fox Sports, would offer free streaming of all games in high-definition over a variety of platforms, including computers, tablets and smartphones.

The Big Ten and NCHC have deals in place to have various games televised on the Big Ten Network and CBS Sports Network, respectively.

"This is extremely important," McLeod said. "It's an indication as a group of how competitive we are. This group, we're going to compete. We're not rolling over in any shape or form. To do that we need to have a media presence both regionally and nationally, and this is our opportunity."

While the package could provide the league and its members with some revenue streams, including commercial time, it's not necessarily going to be a big money maker.

"We're looking at is more as an investment," Minnesota State athletic director Kevin Buisman said. "I think it will create familiarity and interest for all levels — fans, boosters and alumni — and, equally, exposure to student-athletes and recruits. We need to guide them to a viable platform where they can catch games live or on demand."

Minnesota State already produces its own home games for broadcast on Charter cable, using a crew from Bethany Lutheran College, and presumably those broadcasts would be used in the new format.

"There are bells and whistles that fans have come to expect, things that are quickly becoming the standard," Buisman said. "TV is the mainstream, but streaming is certainly catching up. We have to think: Is it the future or is it now?"

In other WCHA news, league supervisor of officials Greg Shepherd is in the process of putting together its officiating staff for the upcoming season., McLeod said. The new conferences have poached a few of the WCHA's referees and linesmen, however, there are former CCHA officials and others available to join the league. McLeod said some officials may do work in multiple conferences.

"At the end of the day, a staff will be in place," McLeod said. "Greg will be able to get good people in place and work with them to make them the best in the country."

McLeod did not elaborate on his future with the WCHA. Although there is speculation that this season will be his last, including a report from the Grand Forks Herald that he told administrators and coaches at April's league meetings in Florida that he is "probably" done, McLeod directed any questions about his status to Davenport.

Meanwhile, two WCHA programs are still looking for head coaches, Alaska Anchorage and Alabama Huntsville.

College hockey shakeup 2013-14 conferences WCHA Alabama Huntsville + Alaska ^ Alaska Anchorage * Bemidji State * Bowling Green ^ Ferris State ^ Lake Superior State ^ Michigan Tech * Minnesota State * Northern Michigan ^ Big Ten Michigan ^ Michigan State ^ Minnesota * Ohio State ^ Penn State + Wisconsin * NCHC Colorado College * Denver * Nebraska Omaha * Miami ^ Minnesota Duluth * North Dakota * St. Cloud State * Western Michigan ^ * = previously in WCHA ^ = previously in CCHA (Notre Dame moving to Hockey East) + = previously independent