Published Thursday, July 7, 2011 at 3:32 pm / Updated at 11:59 pm
New conference for UNO is a ‘done deal'

It’s being referred to by many as a college hockey superconference, and there’s no question it’s moving forward faster than a speeding bullet.

Six teams are in for sure, including UNO, and two more might join the mix later this summer.

The World-Herald learned on Thursday that the University of Nebraska at Omaha and five other schools will break away from their current hockey conferences and create a new league starting in 2013-14.

Rumors that the conference could soon become a reality quickly gained steam during the past few days. A World-Herald source confirmed Thursday that the move now is “a done deal.”

The new conference will include UNO, North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College and Minnesota-Duluth of the WCHA and Miami (Ohio) of the CCHA. An announcement that those six schools intend to create their own league is expected to come next Wednesday at a press conference in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Two schools that could come on board later are Notre Dame and possibly Western Michigan, both of the CCHA. The Fighting Irish, who also have explored joining Hockey East, are still weighing their options, according to numerous reports.

Several other news organizations, including the Grand Forks Herald and the Duluth News Tribune, were reporting Thursday that the formation of a new league is a certainty.

During an interview Wednesday, Athletic Director Trev Alberts told the World-Herald that UNO has had ongoing discussions, both internally and with other schools, about the Mavs’ future hockey affiliation.

When reached Thursday, Alberts declined to comment on whether the new league is a done deal.

UNO, which started its Division I hockey program in 1997, was a member of the CCHA for 11 seasons from 1999 through 2010. Then the Mavs, along with former College Hockey America member Bemidji State, were accepted into the WCHA in June 2009.

The Mavericks just completed their first season skating in their new league in 2010-11, finishing third in the rugged 12-team WCHA and making the NCAA tournament during coach Dean Blais’ second year in Omaha.

Switching to the WCHA was applauded as an important move for the Mavs, and it aligned them with traditional NCAA hockey powers such as North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Denver and Colorado College.

But the spark that set the college hockey landscape ablaze came in March, when the Big Ten confirmed that it will form its own six-team league.

In two years, Minnesota and Wisconsin will exit the WCHA, while Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State will depart the CCHA. College hockey newcomer Penn State — the school that made the formation of Big Ten hockey possible — will start competing at the Division I level in 2012-13.

It’s anticipated that Big Ten hockey can benefit greatly from the exposure and profit it will enjoy via the Big Ten Network.

The Mavs’ yet-to-be-named future conference is being created so that schools such as UNO, North Dakota, Denver and Miami aren’t left behind.

The new league will include the top remaining programs from the WCHA and the CCHA. Administrators and coaches at the six committed schools believe that the move will help them better compete with the Big Ten when it comes to attracting top recruits, generating postseason revenue and creating a TV deal.

The formation of the new conference, if it ultimately includes all eight teams believed to be involved, will leave Alaska Anchorage, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State-Mankato and St. Cloud State in the WCHA. The remaining CCHA schools would be Alaska Fairbanks, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan.

Why couldn’t the WCHA — arguably the most tradition-rich conference in the NCAA — flourish while remaining intact, minus Minnesota and Wisconsin?

many believe it could have, including those at the WCHA schools that won’t be a part of the new conference.

But with the impending departure of the Gophers and the Badgers, there clearly is concern among the other league heavyweights that the balance of power in the WCHA will be shifting toward schools that devote fewer resources to their hockey programs.

Another possible factor is that several key school leaders reportedly are not satisfied with the way WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod has guided the conference in the months since the Big Ten announcement.

“It’s no secret that I’ve had concerns with the administrative side of the WCHA,” North Dakota Athletic Director Brian Faison recently told the Grand Forks Herald.

What’s clear is that the creation of Big Ten hockey has tilted the world of NCAA pucks off its axis.

UNO and the schools about to join forces in the new league believe they are acting to best ensure their own survival — even if the move could have dire consequences for the programs left behind in the WCHA and CCHA.

“With the inevitability of Big Ten hockey, it’s really forced everybody, including us at UNO, to take a hard look at our programs,” Alberts said Wednesday. “We’ve got to figure out the best way to protect, promote and ultimately continue to build the type of program that our fans have come to expect.

“We’ve made a substantial investment into hockey in Omaha, especially with (hiring) coach Blais. So you have to do your best to understand what’s going on in college hockey, you have to look at other institutions that have made similar investments in hockey, and ultimately you have to do what’s best to protect your program. That’s UNO’s position.”

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