New college hockey conference formed

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- NCAA champion Minnesota Duluth and five other top hockey programs will make up the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference at the start of the 2013-14 season, the schools announced Wednesday.

Minnesota Duluth, Colorado College, Denver, Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association will join current Central Collegiate Hockey Association member Miami of Ohio in the new league.

The upstart conference hopes to also add Notre Dame, but an agreement with the Fighting Irish hasn't been made yet.

"Notre Dame is in conversations with us," North Dakota athletic director Brian Faison said. "They're certainly a program that meets our core values of our conference and we have an interest in them, but we'll continue to explore other options."

The conference laid out its immediate priorities, which include hiring a commissioner and adding other schools.

"I don't think there's a magic number. It still needs to be discussed," Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said of how many teams would eventually make up the conference.

"We all feel there are going to be other expressions of interest," Colorado College athletic director Ken Ralph said. "I don't think you'll see us stay at six. We'll grow to seven, maybe eight."

The landscape of college hockey changed this year when the Big Ten announced a plan to form a hockey conference in two seasons.

The new Big Ten hockey league will take Minnesota and Wisconsin from the 50-year-old WCHA to play with Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State of the CCHA and the startup program at Penn State. That shake-up led to the formation of the NCHC.

"Talks of Big Ten hockey go back 15 years," Denver athletic director Peg Bradley-Doppes said. "When Big Ten hockey was formed, it created a tipping point. That tipping point created more discussions."

The WCHA will have only five teams remaining when the National Collegiate Hockey Conference begins -- Alaska Anchorage, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State in Mankato and St. Cloud State.

"Obviously, it's a tough day for the WCHA and a sad one for me personally, and it's one that is not easy to put into perspective," WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said in a statement. "We wish everyone well, but make no mistake, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association is not going away.

"The league will proudly mark its 60th season this fall and we will continue to operate as a full-fledged association and continue to do business."

The National Collegiate Hockey Conference boasts a strong contingent of teams. In the past 12 seasons the schools account for 14 Frozen Four appearances and four national championships. Besides Minnesota Duluth's title this spring, Denver won back-to-back titles in 2004-05, and North Dakota won the championship in 2000.

All six teams in the new conference competed in the NCAA tournament this year.

"This type of conference, where you have the best playing each other every weekend starting in October is a daunting task," Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. "We want to play the best. We understand it's going to be difficult."

The competitiveness of the teams was a big draw for Nebraska-Omaha.

"We've made a huge commitment to hockey," athletic director Trev Alberts said. "This is exactly what we envisioned two and a half years ago, aligning with programs that have really competed at the highest level of hockey."

Keeping rivalries intact was also important to Denver and Colorado College, which are located 75 miles apart.

"For our fan bases and college hockey on the front range, it was important to keep us together," Ralph said. "It's a happening event and we wanted to make sure it continued."