Myers: Changes afoot, but college hockey tourneys likely to stay
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Downtown St. Paul was buzzing with every shade of green on a sunny Thursday afternoon, and St. Patrick's Day was still about 40 hours away.
Welcome to WCHA weekend in the shadow of the State Capitol, where whether or not the Gophers are playing, North Dakota fans by the sugar beet truckload descend on the corner of Kellogg and West Seventh.
If you own a bar, restaurant or hotel anywhere near Xcel Energy Center, these are the best of times, as the State High School Hockey Tournament is followed a week later by the WCHA Final Five. That means lines three deep at the bar, packed tables and sold-out suites for much of a two-week block.
So the beginning of college hockey's conference shuffle, which started exactly a year ago with the Big Ten's announcement that a college hockey conference would be formed, likely struck fear in the hearts, and wallets, of many in the capital city. But it looks like there may be less to dread than some originally thought.
The WCHA's post-season throw-down has been held at the X since 2001, the first season the building was open. In the two seasons prior to that, the college teams played at Target Center in March.
The CCHA's top teams gather at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, often playing with 10,000 or more empty seats when the games don't happen to include the University of Michigan. By contrast, the travel-happy North Dakota fans (aided by an occasional noteworthy contingent from Duluth, St. Cloud or Madison) have made the WCHA tourney a tough ticket for most night games, Gophers notwithstanding.
And now it seems likely that even with one conference splitting three ways at the end of next season, there will be some college hockey to see in the Twin Cities every March far into the future. Perhaps even on both sides of the Mississippi.
The Big Ten's original plan was to play it's post-season conference games on campus, with the higher seeds hosting. But high school sports, for the time being, have meant a roadblock for that idea, as buildings like the Kohl Center at Wisconsin and the Schottenstein Center at Ohio State host state high school hockey and basketball tourneys in those states around the same time.
So, needing a neutral site, St. Paul and Detroit are the two places that make the most sense, as a rotation between those rinks would appease the Minnesota/Wisconsin contingent and/or the Michigan/Michigan State contingent on an every-other-year basis. Sources tell 1500ESPN that such an arrangement between the Big Ten and the "new" WCHA is close to being reached. That would mean a post-season tournament in St. Paul every March, although the Gophers would only be here every other year. In off years, teams like Minnesota State, Mankato and Bemidji State would be in the running to be the "home" team at the Xcel Energy Center.
And what about those armies of North Dakota fans, with their team heading to the new NCHC (with Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State) at the end of next season? For now, it looks as though they could be heading to Minneapolis, as NCHC officials have reportedly been offered a sweetheart deal to hold their post-season tournament at Target Center.
Of course, that idea raises several questions about the future. The initial good news that there would be one or two college post-season tournaments in the Twin Cities every March is tempered just a bit by several "yes, but..." factors to consider.
For example, while a Minnesota-Michigan tournament final in St. Paul in St. Paul would surely be a sought-after ticket, the notion of filling Xcel Energy Center for a match-up between "new" WCHA teams like Michigan Tech and Bowling Green has no basis in reality. A title game featuring Bemidji State or Minnesota State, Mankato might draw a respectable crowd, but in most years where the Gophers are at Joe Louis, there will be oceans of good seats available.
And the inadequacy of Target Center as a hockey building is one of the reasons the North Stars headed to Dallas rather than moving from the antiquated Met Center to downtown Minneapolis in 1993. A 2010 game between the Gophers and the Badgers is the only hockey game the building has hosted in more than a decade.
But on Thursday night, with close to 10,000 North Dakota backers among a crowd of 15,000 fans in downtown St. Paul, the team with the controversial mascot took another step toward the NCAA tournament, while ending St. Cloud State's season. There was nothing but smiles for those in green, and ditto for those across the street manning the taps.
For one more night of WCHA weekend in St. Paul, the beer and the bucks were flowing, and all was right with the world. Even with notable and possibly ominous changes on the horizon.