The last time college hockey lost a Division I men’s program was in 2008 when Wayne State — the one in Michigan, not the one in Nebraska — folded after nine seasons.
Four years earlier, Findlay dropped its program, and the College Hockey America conference was suddenly on the brink of collapse.
Combined with some other defections, that league did fold after the 2009-10 season.
Bemidji State caught a life raft in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association where, at the time, all of Minnesota’s other DI teams resided. Niagara and Robert Morris jumped to Atlantic Hockey, while Alabama Huntsville was stuck as an independent until the major shuffling of college hockey’s conferences took place in 2013, and they finally found a home in a new-look WCHA.
In a sport that currently has just 60 teams, any time a program gets shuttered it’s bad — for student-athletes, for coaches, for staff, for fans.
A major budget crisis in Alaska that could cripple that state’s university system has hung over the two college hockey programs there for the last few years — although they have found ways to stay afloat.
In late June, when that state’s governor, Mike Dunleavy, slashed $130 million from the university budget as part of some wide-sweeping line-item vetoes, the already cash-strapped system went into crisis mode — and not just in the hockey rinks.
That happened the same day that Minnesota State and six other WCHA schools announced they were leaving the conference to form a new one in time for the 2021-22 season. The group did not include Alabama Huntsville, Alaska Anchorage or Alaska Fairbanks.
As big of a blow as that was to those three programs, it was hardly the worst news of the day for the Seawolves and Nanooks.
Since then, legislators, regents and other officials have been working to come up with solutions. The legislature reduced the governor’s cuts to $25 million, although Dunleavy could still veto that move. And a plan has been floated to create a single university spread among Alaska’s three campuses, which could mean only one of the two athletic programs — if any — survives.
In a story published Friday in the Anchorage Daily News, University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen joked that the single team might be called the SeaNooks, combining two of the most-unique nicknames in college hockey.
“It’s so funny — I guess it isn’t funny, it’s interesting — how important that question is,” Johnsen told the newspaper. “You might think, ‘Who cares?’ but people get really wrapped around the axle on that.
“It’ll be something we have to address.”
After finding enough loose change to cobble together an athletic department, of course.
For this coming year, anyway, they will play sports at Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Fairbanks. That includes hockey.
It’s good news for them, as well as the WCHA and its other teams, who had been working on contingency plans just in case a bunch of dates suddenly opened up on this year’s schedule just two months before the season began. (Minnesota State plays six games against Seawolves and Nanooks this season, four at home and two on the road.)
What happens in 2019-20 and beyond, however, remains to be seen.
Will one team remain? Will both be gone?
Since Wayne State dropped hockey, two other programs, Penn State and Arizona State, added DI programs.
More programs could be coming, as, for instance, Illinois is exploring adding the sport.
That’s a good thing, but real growth — not a zero sum game — would be better.
Shane Frederick is The Free Press sports editor. Call him at 507-344-6373 or email him at email@example.com.
For more college hockey coverage, read Shane Frederick’s Puckato blog and follow him on Twitter @puckato.