WCHA approves playoff format

HOUGHTON – Athletic directors from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association voted on a new playoff structure Friday that will eliminate the bottom two teams from playoff contention, scrap the controversial “Alaska Plan” and redefine if not rename the WCHA Final Five.

The addition of Alabama-Huntsville to the league, as approved in January, opened the door for further the structural change, and the vote took place via conference call Friday. The league’s president’s group will still need to finalize the decision.

“Just with the addition of a 10th team, it gave us an opportunity to rethink the playoff structure,” Michigan Tech athletic director Suzanne Sanregret said. “This seemed like an appropriate time to make a change.”

If the league presidents approve the plan, the WCHA will feature an eight-team playoff, with the top four teams hosting first-round series and the winners advancing to a single-elimination semifinal and championship weekend at a neutral site. The ninth and 10th place teams would be eliminated from playoff contention.

The neutral site will rotate between “two good hockey places,” according to Sanregret: Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids in 2014 and 2016, and the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul in 2015 and 2017. The new Big Ten conference will be at the Xcel in 2014.

The name of the neutral-site tournament is yet to be determined, and while WCHA Final Five would seem a strange fit, Sanregret noted the Big Ten isn’t really the Big Ten anymore either.

The eight-team playoff format will eliminate the so-called “Alaska Plan,” which would involve Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Fairbanks playing each other every year in the first round of the playoffs as a cost-saving measure.

“It’s a good thing. The integrity of the game is certainly at stake, and you can’t have two teams playing each other no matter where they finish in the standings. It’s just not hockey,” UAA coach Dave Shyiak said following his team’s 5-4 come-from-behind win over Tech Friday night. “We were the school to fight against it. … Some common sense kicked in, and now it’s nice to have a regular format for the playoff structure. I think it’s good for the league.”

As part of the deal, the Alaska schools will pay for transportation of 28 people from visiting teams (players, coaches, trainers, sports information personnel, etc.). A similar deal has been worked out with Huntsville, and according to Sanregret, “there’s no financial risk for anybody involved.”

“We took the time to reevaluate and look at the financials from a bigger picture,” said Sanregret, who noted UAA and UAF’s positive relationships with airlines. “It was a very collegial group, and very give and take. We’re all pulling in the same direction. … It’s been a really big step forward for our league, and this allows us to do things right from the beginning.”