Except for a few years in the 1990s, Scott Owens' life has revolved around the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
He grew up in Madison, Wis., watching the Wisconsin Badgers until he took his goaltending talents to Colorado College. After graduation, Owens returned to Madison as a junior-level coach, spent some time on Wisconsin's staff and later was a CC assistant. After four years as a hugely successful junior coach in Des Moines (the only time he spent outside the WCHA kingdom), he's been back at Colorado College as head coach for the past 11 seasons.
Yet now, Owens and CC are checking out of the WCHA, joining five other schools — University of Denver, North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha and Miami (Ohio) — to form the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, as the name was unveiled Wednesday. Depending on how everything shakes out (Notre Dame and Western Michigan still might join), the conference will begin play in 2013-14, coinciding with Minnesota and Wisconsin joining the Big Ten hockey ranks along with Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State.
"I've got real mixed feelings and emotions about this," Owens says. "The WCHA has been a great league, and it's been very, very successful. But things change and times change. And we have to do what's best for our school and for other like-minded schools."
It was easy to understand the Big Ten programs being pressured into that alliance, which includes access to the Big Ten's TV network.
For the fledgling NCHC, which hosted its debut news conference here Wednesday at Penrose House, it's different. Colorado College has been tied to the WCHA for the league's entire 60-year existence. But without Minnesota and Wisconsin, the WCHA could never be the same — and its prospects for TV exposure obviously would be dimmed without the Gophers and Badgers.
"Our conversations actually started with how we could strengthen the WCHA," says CC athletic director Ken Ralph. "But then they evolved into whether there would be advantages to start a new association. As much as anything, it became a matter of how to stay in the forefront of the college game."
The split appears to have come between schools that would have the best potential for making a TV deal and those that wouldn't. Colorado College realistically might have gone either way, and in fact, as Owens puts it, "We had to think about what happens if you're left out."
Not being in a league with Denver or North Dakota, in addition to Minnesota and Wisconsin, would have been lethal for CC's attendance. So in the end, trying to fill an arena of 7,000-plus seats, Colorado College had to follow the path with the best financial prospects.
Perhaps the toughest part of this WCHA fracturing is that St. Cloud State is spending millions to renovate its arena, and Bemidji State just built a new building, both based on being part of the "old" WCHA. Now they'll be scrambling, and it's also possible that a few programs in the hard-hit Central Collegiate Hockey Association might not survive. This resembles college football, with schools bouncing to different leagues, and the maneuvering might not be over. Notre Dame obviously is the next big question mark, and the Irish could just as easily go to Hockey East as the new league. TV might be the deciding factor there as well, with many reports suggesting that Versus (with its ties to NBC, already associated with Notre Dame) might be open to a deal with the "Super League."
With or without Notre Dame, Ralph says he wouldn't be surprised to see the National Collegiate Hockey Conference grow to at least eight members, possibly more. And its offices might be in Colorado Springs, in no small part because of USA Hockey also being headquartered here. Of course, North Dakota and even Nebraska-Omaha might be interested as well, and they'd be more centrally located.
All that aside, Owens says he fully believes CC's fans "will be excited about it, because most of them are newer fans. They don't know about all the history. They just want to see good hockey, and they have high expectations."
Two years from now, those expectations might grow even higher.
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