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Could Minnesota State and North Dakota, shown here the last time they played each other in 2013, end up in the same conference again? MSU on Wednesday applied to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference for future membership. File photo

MANKATO — The college hockey team that was once left behind by some of the country’s power programs has hopes of rejoining that group one day.

With an “eye to the future,” Minnesota State University formally applied for membership into the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, the school announced Wednesday, adding that it is “examining alternative membership affiliation options” for its men’s hockey program.

In a press release, Minnesota State president Richard Davenport said he “would characterize submitting the application as the beginning of the process.”

Approval of Minnesota State’s application is anything but assured at this point, and even the timeline for consideration by the NCHC is unknown. It is believed, due to scheduling commitments, that the earliest the Mavericks could get into the new league, would be for the 2018-19 season.

“This is the start of the process,” MSU Director of Athletics Kevin Buisman said. “It began internally with a review of our flagship program, men’s hockey. That’s the golden goose, and we’re always looking at what we can do to make our men’s program as healthy as possible and as successful as possible.”

If Minnesota State were to be admitted into the NCHC, it would leave the Western Collegiate Hockey Association to rejoin six schools that left that conference for an upstart conference — Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota Duluth, Nebraska Omaha, North Dakota and St. Cloud State. Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan are the other teams in the conference.

In a press release, NCHC Commissioner Josh Fenton acknowledged MSU’s “inquiry.”

“(T)he collective strength of our current membership has always been and will continue to be a priority for the NCHC. …” Fenton said. “(O)ur collective discussion on the topic of expansion is grounded in how we can maximize the value of our current member institutions. This manner of assessing any membership inquiry will continue to be our focus into the future, regardless of the opportunity presented.”

Minnesota State’s announcement came on the five-year anniversary of the formation of the NCHC, although play didn’t begin until 2013.

In the three seasons after conference realignment, which also included Minnesota and Wisconsin going to the Big Ten, Minnesota State has become one of the top dogs in the WCHA. The Mavericks won the MacNaughton Cup as regular-season champion twice and the Broadmoor Trophy as the league’s playoff winner twice. In 2015, they went into the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 team in the nation.

The Mavericks missed out on the national tournament this past season despite winning 21 games and a share of the MacNaughton Cup. The WCHA received just one NCAA tournament bid, and that went to Ferris State, which defeated MSU in the Final Five title game.

Meanwhile, the NCHC had four of its teams in the 16-team tournament, and North Dakota won the national title.

Minnesota State officials, including coach Mike Hastings, all said the WCHA experience has been a positive one thus far, espeically with the strides the Mavericks have made in the conference over the last three seasons. In the press release, Davnenport said he has communicated MSU’s intentions with WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson.

“We have certainly enjoyed our longstanding relationship with the (WCHA), and our relationship with the WCHA and all of its league members remains strong,” Davenport said. “With an eye to the future, we wanted to be proactive in seeking what’s best for the university and believe that now is the right time to consider all conference affiliation options for our men’s hockey program.”

The WCHA issued a statement from Robertson expressing understanding but disappointment.

“The WCHA has a valued relationship with Minnesota State University, and I want MSU to be a part of the long-term future and shared excellence of our men’s league,” the statement said. “The league office will continue to work toward that end.”

Hastings, meanwhile, said his attention and focus are on the current WCHA setup and the season that begins less than three months from now.

“My concern is with us being in the league we’re in right now because I think it’s a very good league,” said Hastings, who is going into his fifth season at MSU.

Minnesota State’s success under Hastings (100 victories in four seasons), major improvements to the team’s Verizon Wireless facilities and strong support from administration and boosters could be attractive qualities to the NCHC, along with the school’s location. Mankato is as close to the geographic center of the NCHC as any city in the six states represented by the league.

Geography would be a win for Minnesota State, too, as its closest WCHA rival is Bemidji State. Others schools in the WCHA include Alabama Huntsville, Alaska Anchorage, Alaska Fairbanks, Bowling Green (Ohio), Ferris State (Mich.), Lake Superior State (Mich.), Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan.

Bemidji State, Anchorage and Michigan Tech were in the WCHA prior to conference realignment. However, Huntsville was an independent program, and Fairbanks, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan were in the now-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association, along with Miami and Western Michigan; Big Ten schools Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State; and Notre Dame, which has played in Hockey East for the last three years.

Speculation about further conference shuffling has been constant since the 2013 changes, and, already, Notre Dame will be leaving Hockey East for the Big Ten as an affiliate member for men’s hockey in 2017. Arizona State, which is coming off its first season as a Division I program, is looking for a conference home. ASU has had discussions with the NCHC and the WCHA.

Follow Shane Frederick on Twitter @puckato

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