Talk of the coronavirus pandemic and its impact have been front and center in the sports world since March, so there was as refreshing change of pace Wednesday. We received a double helping of some actual college hockey news that was mostly COVID-19-free.
The first helping came in the morning when news broke that former Gophers men’s hockey coach Don Lucia would be named the commissioner of the resurrected Central Collegiate Hockey Association, which will be home to seven schools that are breaking away from the WCHA to begin the new league in the 2021-22 season.
Their aim is to form a stronger, more regionally based conference, and they’re doing so by shedding themselves of a trio of financially strapped programs – Alabama Huntsville, Alaska and Alaska Anchorage.
The second helping came in the afternoon when St. Thomas got word from the NCAA Division I Council on its plan to move its athletic programs directly from Division III to Division I without the mandatory stopover in Division II. Tommies officials didn’t get a direct OK from the NCAA – legislation on a D-III to D-I move will wait until next year – but did receive encouraging word that the NCAA will be receptive to a waiver from St. Thomas. That means St. Thomas can continue with its Division I plans – scheduling for the 2021-22 season, recruiting new athletes, etc. – with the likelihood it won’t be stuck in limbo between Division III and Division I.
Wednesday’s two developments are intertwined. The CCHA has seven teams, and Lucia said it’s a priority to add an eighth program given the correct level of commitment and geographic fit – aka money and location. St. Thomas reportedly has a $436 million endowment and is located in St. Paul, checking off those two boxes. The Tommies also will need a conference home, and an invitation to the CCHA would give the league more balance with three Minnesota teams (UST, Minnesota State and Bemidji State), four Michigan clubs (Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan) and one Ohio squad (Bowling Green).
As for the Tommies women’s hockey program, it would fit in seamlessly in the WCHA, which is seeking an eighth team after North Dakota inexplicably eliminated its women’s team in 2017.
Though there are several steps before a St. Thomas-CCHA marriage could happen, Lucia didn’t hide his interest in the Tommies during the video conference announcing his hiring.
“That’s somebody we certainly would have an interest in, as I’m sure other conferences would as well,’’ Lucia said. “They would be a nice candidate, and I look forward, if this [Division I reclassification] goes through, being able to sit down and talk to them.’’
Add in the fact that sports consultant Morris Kurtz, who guided the move of the seven teams to the CCHA, and St. Thomas athletic director Phil Esten worked together in Penn State’s athletic department when the Nittany Lions hockey program was transitioning into the Big Ten, and the dots further connect.
That’s good news all around for college hockey.