From nervous beginnings, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference rises in prominence
(Editor's note: This is Part 3 of a three-part series on how the NCHC was formed and how it got to where it is today as college hockey's dominant conference.)
GRAND FORKS—It didn't take long for the coaches to worry.
By the time the National Collegiate Hockey Conference announced it would be an eight-team league in September 2011—adding St. Cloud State and Western Michigan to the group of six that previously announced—the coaches had started examining the future.
They looked at the most recent NCAA tournament.
Seven of the eight soon-to-be NCHC teams were in it.
The only one that wasn't? St. Cloud State.
North Dakota, Colorado College, Denver, Omaha, Minnesota Duluth, Miami and Western Michigan all made it.
And the coaches knew that would never happen with all of those teams being in the same conference. Somebody had to lose.
At one meeting with a handful of coaches and athletic directors present, one head coach stood up and expressed this concern.
"Before, I could win 20 games a year, because I only needed to win 12," the coach said. "I had eight wins baked in. Now, I have zero wins baked in from a conference side. Guys are going to lose jobs because of this."
The athletic directors also figured this out.
"Somebody has to lose," said former Colorado College athletic director Ken Ralph, who is now the AD at Maine. "Are we prepared for that? Are our fan bases prepared for that? Unfortunately, it was us. We said we were willing to battle through that, because we're all going to invest more and this is going to raise all boats."
Through five years, some teams did find themselves in strange spots. Miami and Colorado College, two traditionally strong programs, have finished in last place. Tiger coach Scott Owens was let go after the first NCHC season.
But the NCHC also has lifted the group of teams collectively.
On the ice, not only does the NCHC have the best nonconference winning percentage (.624) during the past five years (nobody else is higher than .565), it also has won three consecutive NCAA national championships.
In 2016, the University of North Dakota won the NCAA national championship. It only played one game that was within three goals—it came against conference foe, Denver, in the semifinals.
In 2017, Denver won the NCAA championship. The Pioneers only played one game within three goals—it came against conference foe, Minnesota Duluth, in the championship.
In 2018, Minnesota Duluth won the NCAA championship. Although the Big Ten put three teams in the NCAA Frozen Four, it was the Bulldogs who came out on top.
Off the ice, the league has been building, too.
Since the 2011 announcement, Omaha has built a new arena. Colorado College has announced plans for a new arena. UND, Denver and Miami have made major renovations to their facilities. St. Cloud State completed a major arena renovation. Western Michigan made renovations to its ice production and boards.
The only team that hasn't announced or finished major renovations since 2011 is Minnesota Duluth—which opened its new rink, AmsOil Arena, that year.
"These hockey programs were steeped in history and tradition well before the NCHC," commissioner Josh Fenton said. "They didn't need the NCHC to continue to try to battle for national championships. But I believe there was something right about the mix of schools that came together and it's created what we've seen over the past five years, which has been pretty incredible."
The NCHC's fast rise and on-the-ice success helped get fans on board with the league quickly.
The NCHC never faced the same type of backlash that the Big Ten faced from its own fans, some of which attended the Big Ten conference tournament holding signs that said: "B1G mistake."
Former Minnesota coach Don Lucia even used his retirement press conference last spring to implore fans to embrace the Big Ten.
"We fully expected to get backlash," Ralph said. "We knew traditionalists would be upset. It's hard for hockey people. They get very wrapped up in tradition. At the time, you had coaches in the league like George Gwozdecky, Scott Owens, Dave Hakstol, Dean Blais. . . those guys are very tied into the way things had always been done, but they also recognized that change had to happen. They were committed to making it work. They proudly wore their NCHC gear. They talked about the league in incredibly positive ways.
"But still, there was a concern. Are agents going to understand what the NCHC is? Are recruits going to understand? Are NHL people going to understand? When you try something new, you never fully know how it's going to go. But the brand caught fire immediately. To see it work in a sport like hockey is really gratifying."
Why didn't the NCHC face the same backlash as the Big Ten?
Administrators and coaches point to several reasons.
While the NCHC was having a lot of on-the-ice success, the Big Ten happened to start at a time when most of its teams—traditional powerhouses—were in a down cycle.
In the first four years after realignment, the Big Ten only sent one team to the Frozen Four in comparison with seven from the NCHC.
There were other factors, too.
NCHC teams were playing largely the same schedule as before. UND, for example, was still playing Denver, Colorado College, Omaha, Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State. It was still playing Wisconsin and Bemidji State in nonconference. It soon added Minnesota. The schedule wasn't that much different than in the old league.
The WCHA teams that joined the Big Ten saw a far different schedule—as well as different days and times of games. Instead of all start times being 7 or 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, some Big Ten games were moved to Thursdays and Sundays. Some were beginning at odd times. The changes were due to either football or television accommodations. The NCHC schools largely maintained regular start times.
"In college athletics, tradition is everything," Omaha AD Trev Alberts said. "When things get moved around, there can be challenges."
The NCHC has been financially stable throughout the first five years.
After the league was announced, each team paid assessments to help cover initial costs until the league was up and running. The original assessments were roughly $75,000 for the first two years and substantially less the third year.
To cover any potential budget shortfalls, the NCHC has built a reserve fund equal to one year's operating expenses. It was reported a couple of years ago that one year's operating expense is roughly $1.5 million (that's also the buyout if anyone wants to leave the league).
That could come in handy some day if UND—which has, by far, the largest fan base and arena in the league—doesn't host a first-round playoff series or misses the NCHC Frozen Faceoff. The league makes most of its revenue from the playoffs (though its reliance on playoff revenue has decreased in recent years with sponsorships), and in the first five years of the league, UND hosted a first-round series and made the Frozen Faceoff every year.
The league started NCHC TV—a streaming package for all conference games—in Year 2. It has distributed 85 percent of the earnings from that back to member schools. Payments are based on how many fans from each school sign up. Because UND has the largest fan base, it makes the most from NCHC TV. The other 15 percent is retained to re-run the program.
While the league has distributed NCHC TV money back to schools for each of the last four years, it is expecting to be able to distribute operating surpluses back to the schools for the first time once the book is closed on the last fiscal year. Those payments will be equal among the teams.
Last season was the most lucrative yet for the NCHC, aided by the postseason tournament moving from the Target Center to the Xcel Energy Center.
Health of college hockey
When the NCHC was announced, many predicted that it would doom college hockey.
Then-UND AD Brian Faison received emails that called him the "killer of college hockey."
But five years in, that hasn't been the case.
Including Penn State adding a new program—the first domino to fall in the whole realignment process—college hockey has added two programs (PSU and Arizona State) and lost none.
Right now, college hockey is in its longest stretch since the 1960s and early 1970s of not losing any programs. The last college hockey team to fold was Wayne State (Mich.) in 2008.
That doesn't mean that challenges don't exist.
Facing state-mandated budget cuts two years ago, the two Alaska programs nearly folded. And if not for the WCHA stepping up to give Alabama Huntsville a home in 2013, that program could have been on the brink as well.
League revenues aren't what they used to be for the schools currently in the WCHA, but some of them have experienced a revival in the new-look league.
Michigan Tech missed the NCAA tournament for 32 consecutive years before realignment. Since then, the Huskies have made the NCAAs three times in five years. They've also renovated their arena.
MSU-Mankato has made it to the NCAAs three times in five years after making it once in 10 years before realignment. The Mavericks have renovated their arena, too.
Bowling Green is a contender to end its 28-year, NCAA-tournament drought this season.
The NCHC has been a leader in college hockey on several fronts—and wants to continue to do so.
The NCHC was the first league to attempt to use 3-on-3 in overtimes, a move that's been popular among coaches and fans. The WCHA and Big Ten have since followed.
When the NCAA Ice Hockey Rules Committee attempted to kill the 3-on-3 overtimes this summer, Fenton led the charge to keep it.
"Josh won that battle," Faison said.
After a scary incident where a referee was badly injured by a puck to the face and was forced to pay roughly $10,000 out of his own pocket because his primary medical insurance didn't foot the entire $89,000 bill, the league bought a secondary insurance policy for its officials. It became the first college hockey league to do so.
Fenton also has been outspoken on his concern about recruiting practices and took a lead role in making changes.
Fenton said he'll continue finding ways to push to make the NCHC more successful.
"We want to continue to do things that are both beneficial for our conference and college hockey as a whole," Fenton said. "It's been quite a ride for the past five years."
The administrators who formed the league have nearly all moved on.
Ralph left Colorado College to be the AD at Maine. Brad Bates left Miami to be the AD at Boston College. He's now a consultant. Denver's Peg Bradley-Doppes and UND's Faison retired. Minnesota Duluth's Bob Nielson is now the football coach at South Dakota.
The only AD still left is Alberts at Omaha.
The coaches, too, have largely moved on.
Hakstol is with the Philadelphia Flyers. Gwozdecky is coaching Valor Christian High School in Denver. Owens is coaching the Sioux Falls Stampede in the United States Hockey League. Blais retired. The only coaches still left are Scott Sandelin at Minnesota Duluth and Rico Blasi at Miami.
Looking back at the formation of the league, administrators repeatedly credited Faison for his role.
"The reality is that the NCHC is as strong as it is today because schools like North Dakota and others were willing to put what's in the best interest of the conference in front of always themselves," Alberts said.
Ralph said: "Brian had the most to lose. I think a lot of people, at the time, questioned what he was doing. But I don't think they'd question it five years later with another national championship under his belt."
Still, Faison said, it wasn't an easy decision to leave the WCHA and try to create a new league.
"The WCHA has such a tremendous brand and history," Faison said. "You hated to walk away from that. We tried what we could. At the end of the day, it wasn't going to work for us and those other schools."