Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Back on the ice

With school underway at Minnesota State, the Maverick players are on the ice, doing power skating and captains practices five days a week, according to captain Tyler Elbrecht (pictured).

"We've been working hard, working on team building, making sure we're ready to go at the beginning of the season," the junior defenseman said after a shinny (no checking) game Wednesday at All Seasons Arena.

Starting Sept. 15, coaches can be on the ice with players for two hours a week. The official first day of practice is Saturday, Oct. 1. Two days after that, MSU will play an exhibition game against British Columbia. Then on Oct. 7-8, the Mavs will head east to open the regular season against RPI.

"Everybody's come back in better shape and with something to prove," Elbrecht said. "We took it upon ourselves to get better in the offseason so we're ready to go."

If you followed Elbrecht on Twitter (@Elbrecth16), this summer, you've probably seen his almost daily comments about his workouts, along with the occasional inspirational quote. He said understands that there are people who will hold him accountable for those tweets.

"I enjoy Twitter; I'm not going to lie," he said. "I like to have fun with the boys and use it to keep us motivated. But also a big thing is to use it to stay connected, like with Ben Youds (Elbrecht's former defensive partner) or Kurt (Davis), who is in Europe."

After all of the recent news about the changes coming in college hockey and the WCHA, it was refreshing to take a look at this season, rather than the one coming in 2013. Mavericks coach Troy Jutting seemed to think the same way.

"It's two years away," Jutting said. "I'm worried about this year. We've got a game on Oct. 7."

WCHA is sport's 'caretaker'

Here is my column from today's Free Press. ...

You can click the link to read it, but here's the Cliff's Notes version (and a few other thoughts):

For better or for worse, the WCHA has seen itself as somewhat of a caretaker of college hockey, whether it was when it brought in Minnesota State and, later, Bemidji State, or when it helped create College Hockey America, or when it became a leader on the women's side of the sport.

The league seems to be in that mode again right now, partially out of self preservation, as it has invited the CCHA's remaining teams into the league for 2013-14 when the Big Ten and 'National' teams leave the two conferences (this was after the league already grabbed Northern Michigan and ensured that it would have at least six teams and its autobid in two years).

The new-look WCHA will look like a stripped-down version of a once-great conference, and it might be a tough sell in places like Mankato (where many folks are sounding off disgruntled about all of the sport's changes). But many around the country seem to agree that the combined remains (it's not a merger, WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod says) is good for college hockey.

The WCHA hasn't always done things perfectly, and one wonder if at least the departure of the splinter NCHC teams could have been prevented in the first place once the Big Ten made its inevitable decision. Some other questions:

• Is doing what's best for college hockey also the best thing for the WCHA and its current members?

• What kind of sales pitch will the WCHA make to help keep interest high in Mankato and St. Cloud? The league is replacing big-ticket powers like Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota with Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Alaska. Or is this even necessary (remember my "Why do you watch" column)?

• Would it have been better to keep the CCHA alive, along with its autobid? When the CCHA is gone, that tournament bid will go to an at-large team, something the Big Ten and the NCHC must love.

• Why does Alabama-Hunstville continue to be allowed to twist in the wind as an independent? Should the WCHA bring the Chargers in?

Friday, August 26, 2011

WCHA's future coming into focus (updated)

MSU played Bowling Green in 2009. Could the
Falcons be a WCHA rival for the Mavericks in 2013?
Don't call them the "leftovers" anymore.

In two years, the hockey teams left behind following the departure of schools to the Big Ten and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference could be forming their own "super league." On Thursday, the WCHA's remaining teams invited the five remaining CCHA teams to join forces for 2013-14.

Alaska and Lake Superior State already have accepted the offer, and Ferris State appears close to making a decision, (UPDATE) as has Ferris State. Bowling Green has yet to issue a statement yet, and Western Michigan says its exploring all of its options. WMU has made no secret that it is waiting to see what Notre Dame decides to do. Notre Dame was not among the CCHA schools invited to the WCHA because it's clear that the Irish are moving on.

WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod told the St. Cloud Times that this is not a merger of the WCHA and CCHA. This is an invitation to join the WCHA. No matter what you call it, it's the end of the CCHA, which has been around for 40 years.

As it stands current, the WCHA will have eight nine teams in 2013-14 — Minnesota State, St. Cloud State, Bemidji State, Alaska-Anchorage, Alaska, Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan, Lake Superior State and Ferris State — and likely nine once Ferris State jumps aboard. That number could rise as high as 11, depending on what the other three schools decide.

Interestingly, the nine schools are all Division II schools that have Division I hockey programs. Western Michigan and Bowling Green are Division I across the board. An MSU official recently told me that it would be nice to have a DI school in the WCHA, as it would give the league a vote during NCAA DI meetings.

The decision appears to be a good one for the health of college hockey. And, in light of the potential damage done to the sport by the Big Ten and the NCHC it was good of the WCHA school presidents to invite everyone, rather than just pick and choose from the scraps (still, this makes me curious about the future of Alabama-Huntsville).

There are many things to work out, of course. Scheduling should be interesting, with two Alaska teams, three in Upper Michigan and one in the lower part of the state. There will be talks about a conference tournament format, bylaws and finances. Also, fans of the current WCHA teams will have to learn about their new rivals. One bad thing about the death of the CCHA will be the loss of an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament. The extra at-large bid might be tough for the WCHA to cling to, while the Big Ten and the NCHC will be licking their chops for it.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

WCHA invites remaining CCHA teams to merge

The WCHA on Thursday announced that it has invited the "leftover" CCHA teams to join it for the 2013-14 season. Read the press release here. Schools invited include Alaska, Lake Superior State, Ferris State, Western Michigan and Bowling Green. Those schools have 30 days to decide.

Northern Michigan has already agreed to join the WCHA that year — after the Big Ten and National Collegiate Hockey Conference teams form. If all five teams agree to go to the WCHA, the conference will have 11 teams.

Minnesota State president Richard Davenport was quoted extensively in the press release, saying:

"On behalf of those presidents who remain committed to the WCHA in 2013-14 and beyond, I am excited to announce that we have unanimously voted to invite these five CCHA members to join our conference. These schools bring a proud history and tradition with them from the CCHA that will only serve to enhance the already strong reputation of the WCHA.
"We are committed to creating stability for the conference and believe by inviting these institutions we will create one of the strongest conferences in the nation. This is one of the main reasons presidents voted today to invite CCHA member institutions to join our conference. Also, as presidents, we are committed to providing the best college hockey opportunities in the country for our student-athletes."
Some reports have suggested that Alaska, Lake Superior and Ferris State will accept invitations. Western Michigan has hinted that it would like to do what Notre Dame does (Notre Dame was not part of the invite; it appears headed to the NCHC or Hockey East).

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Officials from the WCHA and CCHA met on Tuesday to discuss the future of those conferences once the Big Ten and National Collegiate Hockey Conference start up in 2013. Officials from all of the so-called "leftover" schools — except for Notre Dame, which appears to be heading to Hockey East or the NCHC —attended the meeting.

In a press release, commissioners Bruce McLeod and Fred Pletsch said:
 "This was an important and productive meeting, for all involved parties. We asked everyone in attendance to be open, honest and frank in discussing their concerns, hopes and visions for the future of their respective programs. We recognize that where there is change there is also opportunity. We plan to continue our discussions in the future and to continue to explore all options.
"One crucial thing that came out of the joint meeting today was the word 'commitment'. All of these institutions are totally committed to fielding the most competitive and successful programs possible and to provide the best possible experience for their student-athletes."
The St. Cloud Times' Mick Hatten caught up with McLeod and got a bit more info on the meeting.

Among the topics discussed were: sharing of institutional and hockey program information (including financial, facilities, community support, staffing and travel), scheduling and championship scenarios, and membership and league affiliation (including league size, automatic qualifiers, etc.).

The WCHA has already accepted Northern Michigan into its league for 2013, and McLeod has been to Fairbanks, Alaska, to talk to officials there. Still, this sure looks like the idea of a merger is at least being studied.

As it currently stands, the two conferences will look like this in two years:

WCHA: Minnesota State, St. Cloud State, Bemidji State, Alaska-Anchorage, Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan

CCHA: Western Michigan, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Alaska

Questions and issues: The CCHA needs one more team to have the minimum six required to keep its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament (Do the two conferences want to give up one of those bids by merging?) ... What if Alaska goes to the WCHA? ... Western Michigan has hinted that it would like to go where Notre Dame goes. Is that still a possibility? ... The CCHA has also met with Atlantic Hockey and some of its members, including Canisius, Mercyhurst, Niagara and Robert Morris. ... And is there a place for Alabama-Huntsville in all of this?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Backes among Hockey Hub's top 100

There's a pretty cool thing going on on the website Minnesota Hockey Hub right now. They're counting down the top 100 Minnesota high school hockey players. The countdown began this week, with Herb Brooks as No. 100. They're naming one player per day, leading up to the start of the 2011-12 high school hockey season. This is quite the undertaking, and undoubtedly will stir up great memories as well as a more than a few arguments.

On Friday, No. 96 was unveiled and it was none other than one of Minnesota State's top players, David Backes of Spring Lake Park.

The write-up on Backes praises him for staying in high school and staying at Spring Lake Park, specifically.

"He is all of what you look for in a high school hockey player," his coach, Tom Benson said. "He was committed to a small program like ours, both as a hockey player and baseball player.

"He was loyal to his school, very proud."

Who else from Minnesota State could be on the list? Anyone? Who do you think will be in the top 10? What about No. 1?

What do you think?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Mavs add another forward

PucKato is back from vacation, and, of course, there was MSU hockey news while I was gone.

The Mavericks added Rochester native Charlie Thauwald to the roster. Thauwald, 20, is a 6-foot-3, 225-pound forward who played at Rochester Mayo through 2007-08. The following year was his senior year but he opted to play junior hockey.

During '08-09, he played 23 games with the USHL's Chicago Steel, totaling one goal and two assists. A year later, he played 28 games in Chicago (one assist) and 14 in Owatonna with the NAHL's Express where he had four goals and four assists. Last year, he went to Alaska and joined the Fairbanks Ice Dogs of the NAHL where he had 12 goals, 21 assists and 140 penalty minutes and helped the team win the Robertson Cup as the league's playoff champion.

Thauwald is the younger brother of former Colorado College player Scott Thauwald (2003-2008).

The addition of Thauwald brings MSU's roster to 27 players, including 16 forwards. He will wear No. 20 (Chase Grant is switching to No. 21 — not sure if I had that change on my post about new players and new numbers).

Monday, August 1, 2011

Youds signs pro contract

Former Minnesota State defenseman Ben Youds signed a one-year contract with the American Hockey League's Rockford IceHogs. Rockford is the primary minor-league affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks. Youds participated in the Blackhawks' prospects camp the last two summers.

"We're very excited about the addition of Ben Youds as he impressed all of our staff at the past two prospect camps in Chicago and is coming off an excellent college career," said Mark Bernard, Blackhawks general manager of minor league affiliations, in a press release. "We look forward to watching his development over the next year."