WCHA officially adds Bemidji and Nebraska-Omaha
GRAND FORKS - The Western Collegiate Hockey Association will have two new members a year from now.
The league voted Friday afternoon to admit Bemidji State and Nebraska-Omaha beginning with the 2010-11 season.
The announcement comes after two days of intense negotiations between WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod and Nebraska-Omaha, a school the league has tried to convince to apply for membership during the last two months.
The vote of faculty athletic representatives was 9-0-1 (eight votes were needed to pass) with one team abstaining out of concerns over the expansion process, McLeod said. He declined to say which team abstained.
"This is a watershed day, indeed, for us," McLeod said. "In the WCHA media guide, we have a section for significant dates in our history. This will certainly be one of the more prominent entries in there."
The motive for expansion is to save Bemidji State, which will be without a conference after the upcoming season because College Hockey America is folding. The school has said in the past that it might have to drop its men's hockey program if it cannot find a home.
The WCHA lifted its moratorium on expansion earlier this year and Bemidji State formally applied in March. A month later, the WCHA announced it would put its application on hold while searching for a 12th team for scheduling and financial reasons.
It quickly focused on Nebraska-Omaha, a member of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, and things heated up late this week. Conference calls between the league's 10 athletic directors and commissioner McLeod took place on both Wednesday and Thursday nights to discuss perks being offered to Omaha.
The last time the WCHA expanded in 1999, Minnesota State-Mankato paid an entrance fee of about $120,000 over three years and did not share any of the league's postseason revenue during that time period.
It is believed that new members this year would have to pay about $195,000 over three years -- a figure that is based off of the league's operating costs -- under WCHA by-laws. But the league gave McLeod the ability to adjust those figures in order to attract a 12th team.
On Friday, McLeod wouldn't say what terms he negotiated with Omaha, only implying adjustments were made. The Herald confirmed through multiple sources that the terms are different for Omaha and Bemidji, with Omaha getting a better deal.
Negotiations with Nebraska-Omaha almost broke down a couple of times, but McLeod credited St. Cloud State athletic director Morris Kurtz with reviving them through conversations with Omaha administrator Don Leahy.
"There certainly were some derailers along the way," McLeod said. "When we reached a point where things weren't looking real good, Morris talked to me and said 'I might have ideas that might be able to get this thing back on track.' "
For that, Bemidji State is perhaps the most grateful.
"This is like a 200-pound monkey off of our backs," Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore said. "This is a very special day and I'm very honored and very humbled to be part of the WCHA, which is the most prestigious conference in all of college hockey. It's been a long process with ups and downs. But Bruce has been a big advocate, working very hard behind the scenes for us. Without Bruce, I don't think it would have happened."
The starting date of 2010 also is of great benefit for Bemidji State, which originally planned to play the 2010-11 season as an independent. Now it will have a league to play in when the new Bemidji Events Center opens.
Plenty of adjustments will have to be made in short order for the WCHA.
McLeod said the league has not figured out how scheduling will work with 12 teams, nor does the league know how many conference games will be played each year. It depends which scheduling model the league agrees to use.
The league's postseason tournament also will be a topic of discussion. McLeod speculated that all 12 teams will play in first-round series and the six winners will advance to St. Paul. Two play-in games will be played Thursday, two semifinals on Friday and the championship will be played Saturday.
Nebraska-Omaha's move to the WCHA also means that Dean Blais will be coming to the league where he made his name by leading UND to two national championships. Blais was hired earlier this month to take over for longtime coach Mike Kemp in Omaha.
"I wasn't sure where we were going to end up," Blais said, "but deep down, my love is for the WCHA and I'm happy to be back."
Omaha's departure from the CCHA leaves a hole in that conference that could be filled by Bemidji State's fellow College Hockey America orphan, Alabama-Huntsville.
Huntsville has applied for membership in the CCHA and had a site visit earlier this month. The CCHA is expected to vote on Huntsville's potential membership in August.
"It's not my decision, but I hope that the slot in the CCHA can be filled by Huntsville," McLeod said. "If that does happen, I think college hockey did a great job taking care of its own with the demise of College Hockey America."