There will be a vote today amongst WCHA officials to decide whether or not to lift the current moratorium on league expansion. Unless you've been in a cave you probably know that this vote is a result of the Bemidji State Beaver's application to join the WCHA since their league (the CHA) is due to end it's existence at the end of this season. Two events have led to the downfall of the CHA. Wayne State quit playing hockey and the Air Force Academy moved to the AHA. This left the CHA with only 4 teams and the NCAA will not continue to give a conference an autobid to the tournament to a conference with less than 6 teams. The CHA will still get an autobid this year as the NCAA instituted a grace period.
Today's vote by WCHA members is a simple majority vote. If it passes (and it's almost certain to do so) then another vote will be held (most likely during the summer) to evaluate Bemidji's application to join. Eight WCHA teams will have to vote yes at that time for Bemidji's entrance. Overall the WCHA could be considered a bit snooty. The league has it good. It has built a reputation for quality over the years and national championships aplenty. So Bemidji has it's hands full to show that it can carry it's load. They've pretty much done everything right. They've gotten funding for a new arena and plans are in place to make that happen relatively quickly. The team already competes reasonably well in non-conference games with the WCHA. And their geographic advantage is appealing to a number of current WCHA teams.
I've spoken with someone in the know and I've come to the conclusion that Bemidji's application is all but doomed in it's current form (probably only has 4 or 5 yes votes at the maximum). But I believe it can be successful with one big if. IF Bemidji can convince another geographically advantageous team to also apply then they're probably a shoe-in. Nobody wants an 11 team league. It makes for an unbalanced schedule that is worse than the already ugly schedule the WCHA uses. There are two schools which would ensure Bemidji's bid and both of them currently play in the CCHA; UNO and NMU. Either one of these schools joins Bemidji and the WCHA will probably become a 12 team league. If neither does then Bemidji will almost certainly still be on the outside looking in.
Having been a fan of a team in a similar position to Bemidji, I have a certain affinity for their problem. As an independent in the early 90's both UAA and UAF faced an uncertain future. Nobody wants to play a whole season of hockey when there is little or no possibility of contesting for a championship of some kind. Recruiting kids to play in that sort of situation would be all but impossible. UAA and UAF were essentially saved by the WCHA and CCHA adding them to their conferences. Even with all that history in mind and an understanding of what Bemidji is going through, I have to admit to some indifference to their plight. After all, like I said above; the WCHA has got it good.
A big part of me says that Bemidji ought to go back to Division III. After all there are tons of DIII teams in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Bemidji has a long history of performing well at that level. I also was not thrilled with Bemidji Prez Jon Quistagard's histrionic-laden semi-ultimatum last season. It displayed an unwillingness to pursue any other option outside of joining the WCHA. Such ultimatums generate negativity in me.
All that said, there is one primary reason only that I support Bemidji's entry to the WCHA. The loss of Division I teams is likely to jeopardize the current 16 team NCAA tournament at some point. None of the 4 teams in the CHA have certain futures and losing all four would very likely result in contraction to 12 teams for the postseason. Even if Bemidji can't bring another geographically reasonable team with them they should be added to the WCHA.
There are measures that can be taken to make an 11 team conference work reasonably well. The first of which would be to reduce the number of league games from 28. Extra non-conference games could be very useful and profitable for UAA. The NCAA's "Alaska/Hawaii Exemption" is a valuable thing. Less mandatory league games would very likely mean more home games for UAA as teams from around the country would be happy to travel here when it means they get extra home gates in return; especially considering that UAA has a history of supporting the travel costs for teams to come up here and play. As things exist now every WCHA team ends up with more home games than UAA because of the exemption. Dropping the number of mandatory league games provides UAA with the strong possibility of more home games than road games each year. That should translate to more wins. Lastly, such a situation would make those UAA fans who want to play UAF four times a year happy.
Lastly, there are two events on some distant horizon that will likely have a huge effect on the WCHA. The first is that at some point another Big 10 conference member will add hockey. There are 5 Big 10 schools currently playing hockey; Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. If just one of the other Big 10 schools adds hockey then the chances of all those schools forming their own conference are going to be very high (meaning Minnesota and Wisconsin will bail from the WCHA). Additionally, there are Canadian schools looking to join the NCAA and play Division 1. The most likely of those are both located in western Canada making the possibility of a TRUE western league higher at some point (especially if the Big Ten Hockey Conference happens).