Friday, September 30, 2011

MSU women open season tonight.

The Minnesota State women's hockey team opens the season tonight (Friday) with the first of two home games against Lindenwood. Lindenwood is a new Division I team from the St. Louis area that had been a longtime club power before making the jump. The Lions opened their season a week ago in a lion's den, Wisconsin. The Badgers won 11-0 and 13-0 and outshot Lindenwood 60-11 and 72-3. So there's a good chance for the Mavericks to get a couple of wins under their belts to start the season.

As for MSU, this is the third season under coach Eric Means, and more than half the roster is now made up of his recruits. He certainly expects to see a turnaround this season and should. (Read my column from last week here.)

The big key will be goal scoring, a problem that plagued the Maverick women worse than the Maverick men a year ago. MSU was outscored 122-53 and shut out a whopping 13 times. While Means recruits like Kathleen Rogan, who led the team in scoring as freshman last season (12 goals, 9 assists), and Lauren Smith, who was second (4, 11), will be counted on, so will pre-Means players like Emmi Leinonen (pictured), the Finnish national team member who, according to her coaches, has had her best fall yet. The senior, who was left off the Finnish Olympic roster in 2010, has the ability to be a go-to goal scorer, Means said. In her first three years at MSU, Leinonen has 20 goals and 23 assists in 95 games.

"She's got the hockey sense," Means said, "and she can shoot it. She's got to score for us."

Senior defenseman Ariel Mackley is a back as team captain. Senior D Jackie Otto and senior forward Moira O'Connor are the alternates. Senior Alli Altmann is back in goal, along with sophomore Daniell Butters.

While catching the likes of Wisconsin, Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota is always a tall task, there's no reason why the Mavericks can't pull themselves up to better compete with North Dakota, Ohio State and Bemidji State for that final top-half spot in the WCHA standings.

Tonight's game is at 7:07 p.m. at All Seasons Arena. The second game of the series is at 3:07 p.m. Saturday.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Media day

Thursday was media day for the Minnesota State men's hockey team. Mainly, it was a chance for the Bethany Lutheran College TV crew to get their shots for this season's coverage on Charter cable.

The players donned their new, black road jerseys for the day. Pictured is senior defenseman Cameron Cooper.

I had good chats with team captains Tyler Elbrecht and Mike Dorr. I'll have a feature on Elbrecht as part of The Free Press' season preview package on Tuesday, the day after the Mavericks' home exhibition game against British Columbia.

College hockey's regular season kicks off on Saturday. The Mavericks will have two practices that day and another on Sunday before playing BC on Monday. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

11th? The coaches agree

The 41st annual Grand Forks Herald preseason WCHA coaches poll is out, and, like the media who cover the league, the coaches picked Minnesota Stat to finish 11th in the 12-team league (although one point out of 10th). Denver was picked to win the league. Here are the results:

1. Denver (7 first-place votes) 115 points
2. North Dakota (4) 110
3. Colorado College (1) 105
4. Nebraska-Omaha 89
5. Minnesota Duluth 75
6. Minnesota 74
7. St. Cloud State 61
8. Wisconsin 54
9. Alaska-Anchorage 36
10. Bemidji State 30
11. Minnesota State 29
12. Michigan Tech 14

Player of the year: Jaden Schwartz, CC (8 votes), Justin Schultz, UW (2), Terry Broadhurst, UNO (1), Jack Connolly, UMD (1).

Rookie of the year: Rocco Grimaldi, UND (10), Joey LaLeggia, DU (1), Jayson Megna, UNO (1).

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Media pick MSU 11th

The annual 94X WCHA Preseason Media Poll was released Tuesday morning by Duluth's Bruce Ciskie, and the 26 people who cover all 12 WCHA school tabbed Minnesota State to finish 11th in the league.

Here are the results of the poll:

1. Denver (16 first-place votes)
2. Colorado College (7)
3. North Dakota (2)
4. Nebraska-Omaha (1)
5. Minnesota Duluth
6. Minnesota
7. tie-Wisconsin
7. tie-St. Cloud State
9. Alaska-Anchorage
10. Bemidji State
11. Minnesota State
12. Michigan Tech

Preseason player of the year: Jason Zucker, F, DU (10 votes); Jaden Schwartz, F, CC (8). Others receiving votes: Jack Connolly, F, UMD; Justin Schultz, D, Wisconsin; Drew Shore, F, DU.

Preseason rookie of the year: Rocco Grimaldi, F, UND (17 votes). Others receiving votes: Seth Ambroz, F, UM; Scott Mayfield, D, DU; Sam Mellor, F, UAA; Kyle Rau, F, UM.

Preseason coach of the year: Scott Owens, CC (9 votes); Mel Pearson, MTU (5). Others receiving votes: Dean Blais, UNO; George Gwozdecky, DU; Don Lucia, UM; Dave Shyiak, UAA.

Preseason all-conference team: F-Jack Connolly, UMD; F-Jaden Schwartz, CC*; F-Jason Zucker, DU; D-Ben Blood, UND; Justin Schultz, UW*; G-Aaron Dell, UND.

* = unanimous selection

Other players receiving votes: Forwards: J.T. Brown, UMD; Rocco Grimaldi, UND; Corban Knight, UND; Danny Kristo, UND; Drew Shore, DU. Defensemen: Gabe Guentzel, CC; Brad Hunt, BSU; Nick Jensen, SCSU; Brady Lamb, UMD; David Makowski, DU. Goalies: John Faulkner, UNO; Kent Patterson, UM.

I voted in the poll and here was my ballot. I'll do more on my picks later, but one thing I'll mention is that I thought there were three pretty distinct clumps of teams where I thought any of those teams could be pulled out of a hat for those spots. I have lines separating those clumps. What do you think?

1. Colorado College
2. Denver
3. North Dakota
4. Minnesota Duluth
5. Nebraska-Omaha
6. Minnesota
7. St. Cloud State
8. Wisconsin
9. Minnesota State
10. Bemidji State
11. Alaska-Anchorage
12. Michigan Tech

Player of the Year: Zucker ... Rookie of the Year: Grimaldi ... Coach of the Year: Owens

All WCHA: F-Zucker, F-Schwartz, F-Connolly, D-Blood, D-Schultz, G-Dell

Monday, September 26, 2011

Who's No. 1?

The USCHO and USA Today preseason polls were released Monday, and there are different No. 1s. Notre Dame has the top spot in the former, and Miami leads the list in the latter.

College hockey appears to be wide open this season, though, because seven different teams received first-place votes in the USCHO poll (which I vote on, by the way).

Here's a look at this year's rankings (first-place votes in parenthesis):

1. Notre Dame (11)
2. Miami (12)
3. North Dakota (5)
4. Denver
5. Boston College (2)
6. Michigan
7. Colorado College
8. Minnesota Duluth (10)
9. Yale (1)
10. Boston University (2)
11. Union
12. New Hampshire
13. Western Michigan
14. Nebraska-Omaha
15. Merrimack
16. Maine
17. Wisconsin
18. Rensselaer
19. Minnesota
20. Cornell
Others receiving votes: Dartmouth, Air Force, RIT, St. Cloud State, Alaska, Ohio State, Northeastern, Ferris State, Lake Superior, Northern Michigan, Providence, Princeton, Michigan State, Quinnipiac, Massachusetts

USA Today
1. Miami (15)
2. Notre Dame (4)
3. North Dakota (3)
4. Denver
5. Boston College (1)
6. Boston University (3)
7. Colorado College
8. Yale
9. Michigan
10. Minnesota Duluth
11. Union
12. New Hampshire
13. Western Michigan
14. Nebraska-Omaha
15. Maine
Others receiving votes: Minnesota, Merrimack, Wisconsin, Cornell, Alaska, Dartmouth, Rensselaer, RIT, Air Force, Ohio State, Holy Cross, Quinnipiac, St. Cloud State.

A few thoughts:

Seven WCHA teams made the rankings/receiving votes: North Dakota, Denver, CC, Duluth, Omaha, Wisconsin, Minnesota and St. Cloud — all teams that are leaving the league in two years.

The other teams going to the NCHC — Miami and Western Michigan — are also in the rankings.

While Minnesota State and the other leftover WCHA didn't get any votes, the other future league members — Alaska, Ferris State, Lake Superior, Northern Michigan — all did, although none made the rankings.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Bowling Green's fate, St. Cloud State's decision

On Thursday, as St. Cloud State was bailing on the WCHA, Bowling Green was asking for an extension to to its deadline to decide on joining the WCHA. The school was to make a decision today. 

It had been invited to the league, along with Alaska, Lake Superior State, Ferris State and Western Michigan. Alaska, Lake Superior and Ferris accepted almost immediately (following Northern Michigan), while Western Michigan opted for the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, announcing that decision Thursday a few hours before St. Cloud.

But there have been some interesting rumblings today surrounding Bowling Green. 

First, Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune writer Kevin Gordon wrote about the deadline extension and reported that there is speculation that some Atlantic Hockey programs might be interested in the WCHA, too:
The extension further fueled speculation Atlantic Hockey members Canisius, Mercyhurst, Niagara and Robert Morris are being considered for WCHA membership. 
Those four schools have expressed an interest in leaving their present league because it offers only 12 scholarships, six below the NCAA maximum. The CCHA and the WCHA use the NCAA maximum.
Adding those four schools would help balance the revamped WCHA geographically. If BG and the four Atlantic Hockey schools joined the WCHA, the league would have 13 schools - six in the south/east; and seven in the north/west.
And it's not out of the question that Air Force, also a member of Atlantic Hockey, might consider a move to the WCHA.
On Friday, however, Duluth radio man Bruce Ciskie reported that Bowling Green has meet with those schools — Canisius, Mercyhurst, Niagara and Robert Morris — and another about joining forces. The other school is Buffalo, which does not have Division I hockey currently. That would be an interesting development, and one that might make more sense for Bowling Green.

UPDATE: More on those happenings from Kevin Gordon.

Meanwhile, here is my story from today's Free Press with some more reaction to St. Cloud's defection. Check out the timeline alongside it that shows the changes that have taken place in the last year since Penn State announced that it would be adding hockey.

For more on St. Cloud State's decision, read Mick Hatten's story from the St. Cloud Times. A couple of interesting comments by North Dakota athletic director Brian Faison, who attended Thursday's press conference:
“It was a very involved process from our standpoint in terms of what we were asking from the schools for information — from institutional profile, academic profile. Lots of questions about program, staffing size, budgets, success, ticket sales, types of ticket sales all factored in. It was a very deliberate process ... We tried to keep it as quiet and confidential as possible.”

Thursday, September 22, 2011

So long, St. Cloud

St. Cloud State and Western Michigan accepted their invitations to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference on Thursday, announcing their decisions during press conferences. No one thought they were going to turn it down, did they?

Read some of Minnesota State's reaction to the move, which, in two years, will leave the Mavericks without their oldest rivalry in the WCHA, here. Interestingly, they weren't shocked by the move.

As for Thursday's announcement, here are some of the comments that came out of the St. Cloud State press conference:

"I have to look out for the well being of my institution, but we also care about the future of college hockey." — Earl H. Potter, St. Cloud State president.

"It was not an easy decision to leave the WCHA, but it was the only decision that was right for us." — Potter.

Huskies coach Bob Motzko vowed to continue to support Minnesota State and Bemidji State and other hockey programs in the state.

Later Thursday, the WCHA issued a press release expressing disappointment in St. Cloud's decision. In the release, commissioner Bruce McLeod said:

"(We want) to reiterate in the strongest possible terms that the (WCHA) will persevere, soldier on and continue to do things as we always have — in a first-class manner. The eight programs that currently make up the new-look WCHA ... are 100% committed to Division I ice hockey, and we are looking forward to working together toward a common goal of providing a first-class environment for our product, our student-athletes and our fans and doing what's right for the sport. Our brand is strong and we intend to build on that."

Meanwhile, Bowling Green announced on Thursday that it has been given a deadline extension until Oct. 7 to decide on its its invitation to join the WCHA.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

NCHC makes it official

The National Collegiate Hockey Conference made it official around noon on Wednesday announcing that it indeed is inviting Western Michigan and St. Cloud State to the league. I'm hoping to get some Minnesota State reaction today:

Here is the announcement:

National Collegiate Hockey Conference Extends Membership Invitations to St. Cloud State and Western Michigan

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – The National Collegiate Hockey Conference today announced that it has invited St. Cloud State University and Western Michigan University to join the new Division I men’s hockey conference which will begin play in the 2013-14 season.

St. Cloud State, located in St. Cloud, Minn., and a member of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, and Western Michigan, located in Kalamazoo, Mich., and currently competing in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, would join conference founding members Colorado College, University of Denver, Miami University, University of Minnesota Duluth, University of Nebraska Omaha, and University of North Dakota. 

“After a thorough and deliberate evaluation process, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference is delighted to extend invitations to St. Cloud State and Western Michigan to become members of what we believe will be the premier college hockey conference in the United States,” said Brian Faison, director of athletics at North Dakota and spokesperson for The National’s Athletic Directors Committee.

“Both universities fit perfectly with the established goals of our conference membership,” said Faison. “Their programs are highly competitive and produce quality student-athletes. Each institution has made significant commitments to the continued success of their hockey programs and they are both located in tradition-rich hockey states. St. Cloud State and Western Michigan, with their passionate fans, will add a great deal to The National and we look forward to welcoming them.”

“With the launch of the inaugural season for The National just two years away, and with greater clarity regarding membership, we are confident the strength of our schedules and the success of our teams will produce outstanding hockey with regional and national appeal, and strong contenders for the national championship on an annual basis,” Faison added.

In addition to advancing its membership process, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference has been conducting a national search for its first commissioner and expects to have its top executive in place by the end of the calendar year.

Another breakaway — St. Cloud State?

Well, it appears Western Michigan finally made up its mind, and it's decided to go to the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference instead of the WCHA. That is not a big surprise.

But "The National" is not getting its most coveted school, it appears — Notre Dame — so it looks like it's dipping back into the WCHA for more and inviting St. Cloud State to join the breakaway league. Reports out of Kalamazoo, Mich., and Grand Forks, N.D., say that St. Cloud is expected to accept the offer.

Since North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Minnesota Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha announced they were leaving the WCHA to form the new league with Miami over the summer, St. Cloud State has been a part of the conversations to help keep the WCHA together. That included getting CCHA leftovers Northern Michigan, Alaska, Lake Superior State and Ferris State to join the league. Western Michigan was also invited, as was Bowling Green (there's probably a good chance Bowling Green will be in now).

After the NCHC's initial press conference, St. Cloud State president was vocal about his school not being part of the new league, saying: "The NCHC doesn't look like such a sweet deal for all of these teams." And: "We expected to be in conversations about (the NCHC). But as we looked at it ... we intended to say no."

This is a big blow to the remaining WCHA. St. Cloud State would have been a good rival for Minnesota State and Bemidji State and would have been a good balance, especially travel-wise, for a conference that would have had three Minnesota schools, two Alaska schools and four Michigan schools.

When all is said and done, the WCHA will be left with four current members in two years — MSU, Michigan Tech, Alaska-Anchorage and Bemidji State.

This also begs the question: If the NCHC is taking away six of the WCHA's remaining 10 teams (after the formation of the Big Ten) and if the WCHA commissioner had permission to expand and invite Miami and Notre Dame (presumably while several schools already were conspiring to form a new league), what exactly is the point of the new league? To change leadership? To bump off the little guys — MSU, Tech, Bemidji and Anchorage? To be "National"?

So, if all goes down as predicted, here's what the western conferences will look like (remember this all started almost exactly one year ago when Penn State announced it was adding hockey!).

Minnesota State
Bemidji State
Michigan Tech
Northern Michigan
Lake Superior State
Ferris State
Alaska (Fairbanks)
Bowling Green

North Dakota
Colorado College
Minnesota Duluth
St. Cloud State
Western Michigan

Michigan State
Ohio State
Penn State

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Minnesota State football — live blog

Switching gears today and covering Minnesota State football. Enjoy the live blog!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Hockey's in the air

Call it the end of pre-preseason and the start of preseason.

The Minnesota State men's hockey team had its first practice of the season with coaches on Thursday, going through an hour-long workout at All Seasons Arena. Starting Thursday, coaches get two hours of ice time with their teams per week until the official start of the season on Oct. 1.

"This is the preseason," MSU coach Troy Jutting said afterward. "We're setting up for the first practice.

"It was good. The intensity was good. The kids worked hard. It was short, so we don't get too far into things. But it's a chance to start getting used to the pace."

The Mavericks will have another hour-long practice on Friday and then have three 40-minute practices in each of the next two weeks, Jutting said.

Senior goaltender Austin Lee said it was a good first day.

"It was good to get the first-year guys acclimated to the speed of practice. That's always fun," he said.

Senior Michael Dorr said he and fellow captain Tyler Elbrecht have been running captains practices as well as some on-ice drills to get ready for Thursday. The team has also been running and doing other dryland workouts.

"Guys are in good shape," Dorr said. "But there's a difference between on-ice shape and running shape."

Jutting praised MSU strength and conditioning coach Tom Inkrott, saying he "did a great job this summer with the kids."

Getting closer

As Minnesota State men's hockey captain Tyler Elbrecht (@Elbrecht16) tweeted this morning:
It's time to start official practice today. Let's go to work boys. #mavhockey
Yes, starting today, college hockey teams can start practicing. Coaches get two hours a week with their teams until Oct. 1 when regular, daily practices begin. Minnesota State will have an exhibition game in just 18 days, and the Mavericks will kick off the regular season in three weeks and a day (!) at RPI.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Brownlee a 'rising star'

Good things keep happening to former Minnesota State hockey captains.

Last week, David Backes was named captain of the St. Louis Blues, and Monday night, Backes' old teammate Chad Brownlee earned the Rising Star honor at the Canadian Country Music Awards. Of course, Brownlee was asked about hockey after receiving the award.

"All the guys at the hockey shop. All my hockey buddies and my coaches. They all hinted for a lot of years that I should hang up the skates and play music and I didn't listen to them," Brownlee told the Toronto Sun. "So I don't know if they were bashing my hockey skills or saying I was a good musician."

A year ago, Brownlee was the winner of the CCMA's New Artist Showcase.

More info on Brownlee can be found on his website, and you can even buy some cool CB gear there.

Friday, September 9, 2011

If the 'C' fits ... (update)

Former Minnesota State captain David Backes is now wearing the "C" for the St. Louis Blues.

On Friday, the Blues announced that Backes will be the franchise's 20th captain, putting him in some pretty good company. Others who have held the job in St. Louis have included: Brett Hull, Brian Sutter, Chris Pronger, Al MacInnis and Wayne Gretzky.

Backes, 27, has become a star in St. Louis. In five seasons, he has scored 102 goals and 218 points. Last season, he led the Blues in goals (31), points (62, a career high) and plus-minus (+32).

Backes was an assistant or alternate captain last season. Last November, the Olympian signed a new, $22.5 million contract to stay in St. Louis until 2015-16.

Read more here and here. See the list of Blues captains here.

Update: Watch video of Backes talking to the media about his new role here.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

WCHA markets

After a rather animated newsroom discussion about the future WCHA today, I decided to take a look at the size of the cities that will house league teams in 2013-14. Gone will be Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver, Colorado Springs, Omaha, Madison, Grand Forks and Duluth. In will be Fairbanks, Marquette, Sault Ste. Marie and Big Rapids. Here are the populations of the new WCHA cities. Mankato will suddenly become the third-largest area in the league.

City                                     Population              Metro Area
Anchorage, Alaska              291,826                    374,553
St. Cloud                             65,842                      189,148
Mankato-North Mankato     52,703                      96,740
Fairbanks, Alaska                35,132                      51,926
Marquette, Mich.                 21,355                      67,077
Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.        16,542                      NA
Bemidji                                13,431                      NA
Big Rapids, Mich.               10,849                      NA
Houghton, Mich.                 7,010                        NA

If Western Michigan and Bowling Green decide to join the league, they will give the league its second- and sixth-biggest areas. WMU is in Kalamazoo, Mich., which has a population of 74,262 (326,589 metro area). Bowling Green, Ohio, has a population of 30,028 but is part of the Toledo metro area, which includes about 650,000 people.

Update: Here the Metro Area populations of the programs leaving the league:

Minneapolis-St. Paul   3.2 million
Denver                        2.5 million
Omaha                        885,000
Colorado Springs        645,000
Madison                      561,000
Duluth                         276,000
Grand Forks                98,000