Big changes in store for UAF hockey

Rebecca Coleman / Special to the Sun Star
Sept. 20, 2011

The Nanooks will soon say goodbye to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA), the league that first invited the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) to play in a Division I hockey conference in 1993. Starting in 2013, UAF will team up with its intrastate rival, University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA).

In sports, universities are part of conferences — schools in a particular region that compete against each other throughout the season, with the exception of out-of-conference tournaments. However, not all schools within a conference offer the same sports. Hockey is one such sport. Due to the limited amount of schools that offer hockey, there are hockey-only conferences. Each conference must have at least six schools, as dictated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

When Penn State announced last season that they would add hockey to their athletic program for the 2013-2014 season, the Big Ten got the sixth team they needed to form their own collegiate hockey conference. After that announcement, schools have been changing conferences and leagues have been reshuffling throughout the nation.

Not many schools are left in the CCHA and WCHA. Three teams from the CCHA (Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State) and two teams from the WCHA (Wisconsin and Minnesota) will leave their conferences to join the Big Ten. This caused uncertainty about the future of both conferences, especially since schools from the WCHA, along with Miami from the CCHA, decided to form a new “super conference,” the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC).

Notre Dame decided not to be part of the CCHA and is looking to join Hockey East or the NCHC. Western Michigan is considering joining the NCHC as well. Northern Michigan quickly joined the WCHA, leaving few schools behind in the CCHA.

“I think it has everything to do with money,” said Dave Shyiak, head hockey coach for UAA.

“The glamour schools want to be aligned with [other] schools that have finances and resources,” he said.

Even if the “glamour schools” will no longer be affiliated with the WCHA, Shyiak said it will remain a strong conference.  “You look at [the schools being added] and you see their history and tradition with the national championships; you’re adding teams that have been to the NCAAs before,” he said.

The Nanooks went to the NCAAs in 2010. UAF’s strength and commitment to their program was one of the reasons the Nanooks were invited to the WCHA, Shyiak said.

When the 2013-2014 season rolls around, UAF fans won’t host the big schools from Ohio and Michigan – or Indiana’s Notre Dame – but instead, a mix of schools from the Midwest. These WCHA schools include UAA, Bemidji State, Minnesota State Mankato, St. Cloud State, Michigan Tech, and fellow former-CCHAers Northern Michigan, Ferris State and Lake Superior State. Bowling Green and Western Michigan also received invites to the WCHA but are weighing their options. Western Michigan said they want to go wherever Notre Dame goes, but the Fighting Irish aren’t sure where they want to be. These three schools are expected to decide soon.

UAF Sophomore defenseman Michael Quinn, who will be a senior for the 2013-2014 season, said he’s looking forward to some new competition. “It is nice to play other teams outside the CCHA because we only get to play out-of-conference games in tournaments at the start of the year.”

Forrest Karr, UAF’s athletics director, said that many more changes are expected to be made within the next few weeks and months.

Joining the WCHA will be beneficial for several reasons, Karr said. Student athletes won’t miss as much class time. The Brice Alaska Goal Rush and Kendall Hockey Classic tournaments will be preserved. The school will benefit from reduced costs for outgoing and incoming team travel. UAF will remain competitive because we will be “competing against schools with strong hockey traditions, similar resources and similar academic profiles,” he said.

Since UAF will be joining UAA’s conference, the Nanooks will play the Seawolves four times in a season, as opposed to the mere two games for the Governor’s Cup that are on the current schedule.  UAF and UAA affiliates alike look forward to the two schools being in the same league for the first time.

“Because Anchorage will be in the same division as us, I think the rivalry will become more heated than it already is,” Quinn said.

“The UAA vs. UAF games draw the biggest crowds, and the games themselves are the most intense because of the rivalry, so I think everybody benefits from that standpoint,” Shyiak said.

The strengthened UAF-UAA rivalry is just one certainty that the future holds for the Nanooks. After what will have been 20 years with the CCHA, UAF can look forward to a new beginning, new opponents, and new challenges with the WCHA come 2013. But in the end, “all teams end up competing for the same goal,” Quinn said: “a national championship.”

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