The WCHA: Death from a thousand cuts

By July 2, 2019 August 29th, 2019 Opinion

In a joint statement released by seven of the WCHA members (Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State, and Northern Michigan) the beginning of the end for the WCHA began. Those institutions jointly announced that they will be leaving the league following the 2020-2021 hockey season.

Cue the outrage.

Words like cowardly, selfish, and destructive have been lobbed at the “Spited Seven” (I’m trademarking that by the way).

While the timing of the statement does seem to lend itself to an attempt at a late Friday news dump, there’s more to the timing of the announcement than┬ájust a public relations maneuver. The teams are required to submit their intentions to leave at least two years before exiting. The late-June timing falls in with that schedule as academic semesters begin again in just a couple months. Failure to follow the WCHA’s laws regarding this results in steep penalties. It’s unknown at this time if there will be an exit fee for those teams leaving the league.

The worst kept secret in college hockey has been the frustrations of most of the “new” WCHA members. Travel budgets ballooned, the playing style from less skilled teams was criticized, and the bottom of the league anchored its institutions in the Pairwise. Former Falcon Head Coach Chris Bergeron even talked about his frustrations about the league publicly at alumni/booster gatherings.

Those frustrations came to a head a few weeks ago.

The Alaskas

I’ve talked to a few throughout the league who expressed their frustrations that Alaska-Anchorage would be moving their games to a 750 seat practice rink as a way to save money. The decision was unilaterally agreed to by the league leadership without any input from its member schools, despite a league rule requiring their venues to seat a minimum of 2,500. UAF also has announced a transition plan to move to a practice rink as the state of Alaska continues to face budget threats by its governor.

It’s important to note that these decisions from the 49th state weren’t the precipice of last Friday’s announcement. This push for secession has been years in the making. But it’s been an example of a continued disease this haphazard league has suffered from since realignment: financially-committed and competitive programs are expected to drag those unwilling or unable to commit resources across the finish line.

It’s become a seemingly annual discussion about cuts to higher education in Alaska and those frustrations about the future of those programs have long since boiled over. In fact, the University of Alaska system faces a $140 million cut assuming the state legislature fails to pass a veto before July 12th.

Alabama-Huntsville

The Chargers have been down this road before. They were left holding the bag when College Hockey America disbanded and their CCHA application was denied. They struggled through an independent schedule before joining the WCHA. UAH even announced potentially building an on-campus arena recently. However, the truth of the matter is that Alabama-Huntsville has failed to field a competitive program in over a decade. They last finished with a .500 record in 2005-2006 and have only had a double-digit win season once in the WCHA.

Many times people will draw comparisons between Bowling Green’s near death sentence and that of UAH. The difference between the two is that BGSU’s administration placed a financial commitment behind the program. The Chargers seem to be plagued by an administration that’s content in providing the bare minimum to field a program.

I’d give the Chargers a 50/50 chance of joining Atlantic Hockey. If they’re unable to come to an agreement with that primarily east coast league it could end NCAA hockey in the South.

The Footprint

The WCHA spans from the Eastern to the Alaskan time zone (a difference of four hours). I’ve been on one of the Alaska trips and here’s how my Saturday night/Sunday travel day was:

  • Game at 11:07 PM ET/7:07 PM AT
  • Game over around 1:30 AM ET/9:30 PM AT
  • Fly out of Fairbanks at 4:00 AM ET/12:00 AM AT
  • Arrive in SeaTac around 8:00 AM ET/5:00 AM PT
  • 2 1/2-3 hour layover
  • Fly out of SeaTac around 11:00 AM ET/8:00 AM PT
  • Arrive back in Detroit around 3:00 PM ET
  • Arrive back in Bowling Green around 5:00 PM ET

Hope you grabbed a pre-game nap.

Full props to the Alaska teams who seem to do this every other weekend, but this travel is absolutely brutal. Not to mention the years where you make the trip to Alaska twice.

It’s believed that the Alaska teams provide approximately $20,000 to offset the travel costs for these weekends. However, that still leaves a hefty amount that teams are responsible for covering. While the NCAA allows exemptions for every Alaskan game played (for each contest in Alaska teams can schedule an additional game over the usual 34-game limit), teams are opting to keep their bye weeks. This has been especially true since the WCHA’s offseason was extended by a week when semifinals were moved to campus sites.

For Huntsville, the shortest trip to UAH is actually from Bowling Green who has a nine-hour bus trip. If you’re Bemidji and you opt to drive you’re looking at a 19-20 hour bus trip (assuming the weather cooperates). The Chargers also provide a travel subsidy but it also falls far short of covering the full cost of the trip.

In full disclosure, I should mention that thanks to a gracious benefactor BG chartered flights to Bemidji State, Michigan Tech, and Minnesota State this past season.

This encompasses just a few of the reasons that the Spited Seven decided to announce their exit from the WCHA.

Those teams who are being left out in the cold have my sympathy. I’d be pissed off if the same thing happened to Bowling Green. But, the fans of these programs being left out in the cold need their programs’ administrators (and governments) to look in the mirror to figure out who is responsible for the death of the WCHA.

Drew Evans

About Drew Evans

Drew is a co-founder and the editor for BGSUHockey.com. When he's not in the press box he makes (legal) drugs at a northwest Ohio compounding pharmacy. Drew is entering his eighth season covering Falcon hockey and has been a fan of the program since his time as a student beginning in 2003. He can be reached on Twitter @BGSUHockeySite and by e-mail at Drew@bgsuhockey.com.