The landscape of college hockey drastically changed a few years ago, and as a result two new conferences were born. Both the Big Ten and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) this week host their third annual post-season tournament. The respective league winner gets the NCAA automatic qualifying berth.
It easily can be called the “Green Line” series — the Big Ten begins Thursday in downtown St. Paul at the Minnesota Wild’s home rink, and the NCHC starts Friday in the converted Minnesota Lynx-Timberwolves center in downtown Minneapolis. Both leagues will crown their respective champion Saturday night.
This double scheduling, however, poses a hellish situation for hockey fans, especially those who may want to see both league tourneys. “If you are just a fan, you are torn,” former Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi told the MSR.
The eight-team NCHC are re-seeded after last week’s quarterfinals best-of-three winners for the two Frozen Faceoff semifinals on Friday. The six-team Big Ten single elimination tourney begins Thursday.
Maturi, during his tenure as Minnesota athletic director, was involved in the discussions that led up to the Gophers leaving their longtime association with the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) for the newly founded six-team Big Ten Men’s Hockey conference in 2013. The move ended decades-old regular season intra-league rivalries with other in-state schools such as St. Cloud State, which joined Minnesota-Duluth for the then-new NCHC.
“To be honest, I fought it for a long time,” said Maturi. “You’re talking about years of history.”
While the WCHA moved on and still exists, some Gopher fans still long for the “old” WCHA, in which Minnesota in its final two years in the league was their regular-season champion. To others, the fact that Minnesota thrice won the Big Ten regular season in as many seasons, and comes into this weekend as the defending tournament champs, isn’t as meaningful.
“I think once the [other Big Ten] teams get better, it will add more interest,” said Maturi, who reiterated, “It won’t be like the WCHA was.”
The Big Ten since its founding has alternated tournament host cities between St. Paul (in 2014 and this year) and Detroit (2015 and 2017). It returns to St. Paul this year, while the NCHC throughout its existence has held its post-season tournament in downtown Minneapolis.
While the Motor City is Hockeytown, U.S.A., this mainly applies to the NHL’s Red Wings and not college hockey. Some suggest that not having a permanent site, as does the NCHC in Minneapolis, has not helped the Big Ten gain widespread acceptance by longtime local college hockey fans.
“It is going to be better than in Detroit,” predicted Maturi on this year’s tournament. “It’s the reality, and you need to embrace it.”
MN among last four standing
After his team’s NCAA quarterfinals win over Princeton to advance to this weekend’s Frozen Four, Minnesota Coach Brad Frost told the MSR that his team is relishing the opportunity to play their next opponent — Wisconsin, who defeated them for the WCHA Final Face-off title March 6.
“Our team is really excited, and it’s a fun opportunity,” he pointed out. “Anytime you are among the last four teams standing it’s a great honor, and I know it is something our players are looking forward to.”
Wisconsin junior Sarah Nurse, featured recently on the MSR website, paced her club’s 6-0 win last weekend over Mercyhurst with a power play goal and two assists to advance the Badgers to a sixth meeting this season with Minnesota Friday, 6 pm Central, in the 2016 NCAA Women’s Hockey semifinals in Durham, New Hampshire.
“I think every time we play them it’s an even matchup,” said Nurse. “Whoever brings it that day will win it.”
Visit the MSR website for our “March Madness dispatches” on the Big Ten and NCHC tournaments.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.