Huskies primed to seize opportunity in new WCHA
By MICHAEL BLEACH
HOUGHTON – It’s finally here.
The new WCHA. The remixed WCHA. Whatever your choice of nomenclature, the power conference of old has lost eight schools – most of which with significantly higher enrollment and purse strings than Michigan Tech – in a landscape shift across college hockey and replaced them with six new programs much more similar to the Huskies in size and status.
Gone are trips to North Dakota, Denver and Wisconsin and replaced with forays downstate to Ferris State and Bowling Green.
Even with the season imminent – the Huskies begin Friday with what is a now a non-conference series at Minnesota-Duluth – thoughts remain mixed on the massive reorganization. One the one hand, Tech loses its status as a member of the premiere college hockey conference (and the premiere home games that come with it), but the Huskies have not finished in the top half of the standings any time in the last 10 years. They have been last-place far more often than they have been relevant.
This season, Tech was picked third of 10 by the coaches poll and fifth in the media poll.
“It is change, and change is inevitable. It is what it is,” Tech coach Mel Pearson, entering his third year, said. “I enjoyed the WCHA with what the teams used to be and I am looking forward to the challenges and new rivalries of the new league.
“We can say what we want, but it is upon us now.”
If there is one certain boon it should be this – the rivalry with Northern Michigan is going up a notch.
With four games this season against Tech’s natural rival, the already heated series will take on significantly more meaning. Ditto for cross-U.P. trips to Lake Superior State.
This can only be a good thing as rivalry series often highlight everything to love about college hockey. The passion, intensity, chippiness and emotional swings all now affect who as a shot at home-ice for the playoffs and who’s left wondering what-if. As it should be.
“When you play four games, there is a lot at stake. That is an eight-point swing right there. It just takes it up another notch. The points are huge determining where you end up in the playoffs,” Pearson said.
“You get to know each other pretty well, and it will be intense. We’ll be respectful of course, but it will be intense, no doubt about it.
“The fans are really the big winners here.”
The players themselves are amped already.
“I can’t wait,” Tech sophomore goaltender Pheonix Copley said. “Four times this year. Man, that’s going to be fun.”
Now in a conference with universities more similar in enrollment and athletic budget size, the up-and-coming Huskies should have a realistic spot at hosting a home playoff series for the first time since 1993.
If you are a glass-half full type of fan, it’s not hard to imagine Tech factoring into the championship race as well.
This would appear to be another point in the plus-column for the conference reorganization, but Pearson doesn’t see it that way.
He maintains – as most coaches in his position would – that Tech would have eventually competed for those goals in the WCHA of old.
“It really does not change expectations. When I came here it was for one purpose, to be a championship team. We proved we could last year, we beat Minnesota, we beat St. Cloud, we beat North Dakota, all top programs,” Pearson said. “We just have to do it consistently. I don’t think it really matters what conference you are in, you have to just play well consistently. That is the mindset we have. Switching conferences does really not change anything.”
It is that consistency Pearson mentioned that will determine whether Tech’s first year in the remodeled conference will be a happy one.
The Huskies flashed high at multiple points last season – opening conference play with a win over Minnesota and winning the Great Lakes Invitational for the first time in 32 years – but spent too much time in the valleys, getting swept five times in conference series.
With most of their core returning, Pearson expects (demands) that the Huskies will show their top-gear more often than not.
“We have to learn how to handle success when you have a good game,” Pearson said. “One good game does not make a weekend, and one good weekend does not make a season. Without a doubt, we have to learn to handle success and then have more success. For our program to get to the next level we have to do that.
“When you look at a program that only won nine games in three years, we have come a long way. But we aren’t satisfied and what to be that program that maybe only loses nine games in a year.”