This past weekend, the WCHA’s tumultuous offseason generated the first news of stability.
WCHA fans and everyone associated with its member institutions have been on tenterhooks most of the summer, speculating in both print and in private conversation about what to expect—or not to expect—from the state of Alaska in regards to its two Division I hockey programs. The WCHA staffers in Minnesota’s Twin Cities have been crunching numbers instead of golf handicaps this summer, coming up with not one, but two contingency schedules regarding Alaska hockey: the scorched ice scenario of neither school fielding a team; or the middle path, a consolidation of the two Alaska programs into one team.
Not a single complaint was heard coming out of 2950 Metro Drive in Bloomington for all the required hustle and scrambling. And truth be told, the affaire d’Alaska was just one of the fires Robertson has been managing in this macabre off season, one that has seen the resignation of women’s hockey commissioner Katie Million, and more impactful, the death toll of the WCHA men’s league, as seven Midwest teams prepare to depart in 2021.
“We have received confirmation from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Alaska Anchorage that there will be no change in the status of their hockey programs for the 2019-20 season,” commissioner Bill Robertson said in a press release distributed Saturday. “Both teams will compete in the WCHA this season. We are pleased with this decision and look forward to another exciting season from our 10-member institutions in the Men’s League of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.”
Along with the two Alaska schools, Alabama Huntsville will be on the outside looking in two seasons from now. UAH’s interim athletic director Dr. Cade Smith spoke for several parties when he issued the following statement after getting blindsided June 29: “This news came without warning.”
Dr. Morris Kurtz is the de facto commissioner for the unnamed new league, at least for the time being. He is also the designated spokesperson for the exiting teams dubbed “The Spited Seven,” by Bowling Green hockey blogger Drew Evans. Kurtz speaks in flowery terms about the man he is counting on to keep the WCHA ship afloat, a ship that has taken severe broadsides this summer.
“He’s been wonderful to work with since I first called him and told him about this initiative,” Kurtz said from his office in Saint Cloud. “He and I are friends, and I look forward to working together. All seven institutions will be playing as members of the WCHA over the next two years, so it’s important we have a good relationship.”
It’s apparent that few, if any, of the individuals behind this mass exodus have considered the challenges facing Robertson and his staff. Job security has evaporated, working to the league’s conclusion in March of 2021 would lead to career dead ends for all involved. The drama in Alaska is sure to intensify, and Roberts will have to manage a league consisting of “Haves” and “Have Nots” in terms of their respective futures.
Fortunately for the league, Robertson is a man of unimpeachable integrity, and he remains one of the most popular men in the sport. His hockey resume is matched only by his bulging rolodex. If he chooses to stick out this two-year challenge, one with an unimaginable degree of difficulty, he’ll have a fighting chance of getting to the finish line, because he’s Billy Rob.
There will be no respite from news and developments for the WCHA in its remaining months of existence, a league once known as the standard bearer for hockey excellence. Stay tuned.