WCHA To Pursue Expansion

      Bemidji State’s wait to gain admission to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association will be longer than expected, but the school’s hopes remain strong, men’s coach Tom Serratore said Tuesday after the league tabled an expansion vote.

     Bemidji State made an hour-long presentation to league officials Monday during WCHA meetings in Marco Island, Fla., and a vote on admission could’ve been taken Tuesday. However, commissioner Bruce McLeod said in a conference call that the league’s priority is to add two teams, not one, to allow equitable scheduling. He said the admission period would remain open indefinitely and said he’s been given latitude by the WCHA to be more aggressive and innovative in talking with prospective schools about joining the 10-team league.

     The WCHA wants a 12-team conference and hopes to find a second team to join Bemidji State to begin play in 2011-12. That would require Bemidji State to play one season as a Division I independent following the demise of its present four-team league, College Hockey America, after 2009-10.

     "We feel confident the WCHA will find a 12th team and I’m very confident we’re going to get into the WCHA," said Serratore, whose team competed in the 2009 NCAA Frozen Four. "I don’t think there will be any problem in being an independent for one year because we have the support of the college hockey body. But the quicker [Bemidji State joins the WCHA], the better."

      McLeod also said he has faith in the league’s credentials as an NCAA elite conference and the attraction it may hold for other teams. While he would like to identify a 12th team by mid-summer he said it may take longer.

     "Once I get some indication from [other prospective members] I will talk to them, while having the utmost respect for their position in other leagues," said McLeod. "We’ve reached a real critical point in college hockey." 

      Schools mentioned most often as WCHA candidates are former league member Northern Michigan of Marquette, Mich., and Nebraska-Omaha, members of the 12-team Central Collegiate Hockey Association. Northern Michigan athletic director Ken Godfrey told the News Tribune in January that he was interested enough in the WCHA to at least look at the travel budget differences between the league and the CCHA.

     The WCHA hasn’t expanded since Minnesota State-Mankato joined the league 10 years ago. McLeod stopped short of saying he has been given the OK to use incentives to find a 12th team, but said there could be negotiations on admission details including membership fees and the timetable for post-season revenue sharing.

      Bemidji State athletic director Rick Goeb said he wasn’t disappointed in the WCHA’s choice not to take an admission vote. A prospective school needs eight affirmative votes from the 10 league institutions.

     "The issue is to get 12 teams," said Goeb. "We are pleased with the WCHA’s decision and understand their situation."

      Bemidji State’s hopes of joining the WCHA helped secure funding for a Regional Events Center, a 4,000-seat building which will house the hockey team beginning in 2010-11. Groundbreaking took place earlier this month.

      McLeod was questioned about Minnesota State-Moorhead, which earlier this month gave indication of starting men’s and women’s Division I teams. But because Moorhead’s planning is in the early stages, McLeod said that the school would be a longshot to join the WCHA at this time.

      If the WCHA does expand to 12 teams, McLeod said a 28-game league schedule wouldn’t involve breaking the league into divisions, but would center on three pools, each with four teams. A 12-team league would also require six first-round playoff series, instead of five, and would likely require a restructuring of the WCHA later rounds at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center. One possibility would be for the top two seeds to have a first-round bye in St. Paul while the remaining four qualifiers would play Thursday, with winners advancing to Friday semifinal games. There would only be a championship game Saturday and no third-place game.

     Bemidji State is already a member of the women’s WCHA.