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College Hockey: Changes Taking Shape

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The college hockey world is about to undergo quite the makeover. In 2013, Minnesota's five Division I programs will go from being in the same conference to being divided among three different leagues, including two upstart groups whose formation played a big role in last summer's sport-wide upheaval.

Minnesota will play in the Big Ten, while Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State move into the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Minnesota State and Bemidji State will remain in the WCHA.

While the new leagues are still 20 months or so away from becoming a reality and actually playing games, there were still some items of interest out of this week that pertain to them.

On his weekly radio show Monday, Minnesota coach Don Lucia laid out some of the details for a four-team, all-Minnesota college hockey tournament that will be played for the first time in February 2014. The unnamed tournament -- I've heard suggestions for something like the State of Hockey Cup, which I like, and also that the event be named after Herb Brooks, which I love -- will be played at the XCel Energy Center.

I don't know much outside of what Lucia said. He indicated that the Gophers would play in it every year, and one of the other four Division I schools would rotate out every year. It sounds like the Gophers will play a two-game series against three Minnesota teams each season, with the only one not playing a series against the Gophers being the one that played them in the first round of this Beanpot-like event.

Not everyone in college hockey gave a good accounting for themselves over the summer. There was a lot of "every man for himself" behavior, which is antithetical to what has helped make this sport so special over the years. In this case, Lucia and Minnesota are stepping up to do the right thing by committing to a large number of non-conference games against Minnesota teams.

Yes, Minnesota benefits from the Big Ten schedule format, which includes only 20 league games among six teams. It means Minnesota has 14 non-conference games to book, and that's enough for the program to get creative while also making itself look good statewide by continuing to play everyone in the state.

Even with eight games booked against Minnesota teams every year, as it sounds, Lucia has to find three series to play every season. It allows him to schedule tough opponents from the east, giving his kids a chance to see new cities and venues they wouldn't normally get to. It also gives Lucia the opportunity to schedule a few home games against schools Minnesota should be able to beat regularly.

The other new league, the NCHC, announced Wednesday that it will play a 24-game league schedule among its eight members starting in 2013-14. That will mean each team will play four games against five opponents, and only two games against the other two. It's unknown if there will be some sort of pod system put in place to allow for protected rivalries, though such a system does have merit.

Meanwhile, the WCHA is not-so-quietly trying to find a tenth team to fill its league come 2013. Alabama-Huntsville, anyone? The Chargers' program isn't going away as first thought, and certainly it could use the boost a conference affiliation could provide. I know it might not seem ideal to have teams like Alaska-Anchorage making even semi-regular trips to Huntsville (or vice versa, for that matter), but amid all the talk about college hockey being a sport that takes care if its own, it sure would be nice to see someone step up to help UAH.

And by "help," I mean something more significant and meaningful than booking the Chargers for a non-conference series.

On the ice

WCHA-leading Minnesota has a heck of a battle ahead this weekend, with a two-game series at Denver. Wild prospects will be on display, with Erik Haula of Minnesota and Jason Zucker of Denver both having fine seasons. Zucker might get more headlines, but I really like the way Haula's skills are developing in college.

Second-place UMD hosts North Dakota. UMD coach Scott Sandelin, a former UND assistant and UND alum, is 10-28-4 lifetime against the Fighting Sioux. And, yes, we are supposed to call them the Fighting Sioux again. I'm just as confused as you, but it's nice to know that now I won't be screwing up when I use the moniker. For now.

Bemidji State has a chance to catch idle St. Cloud State for eighth and pull itself squarely into the home-ice race when it hosts Colorado College. The Beavers took three points at Nebraska Omaha last weekend, which helped the cause dramatically.

Minnesota State might be in 11th, but the Mavericks keep beating good teams. It was Michigan Tech last weekend, and Nebraska Omaha the weekend before. This weekend, it's the long trip to Anchorage. If the Mavericks can get three or four points out of that series, they could prove a threat to some good teams down the stretch, including UMD, which heads to Mankato next weekend.