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COLLEGE HOCKEY: NCHC says no to expansion

GRAND FORKS -- The National Collegiate Hockey Conference will not be expanding right now. The NCHC released a statement Wednesday afternoon saying it has decided to stay at eight teams "after careful consideration and a thorough vetting process."...

GRAND FORKS - The National Collegiate Hockey Conference will not be expanding right now.

The NCHC released a statement Wednesday afternoon saying it has decided to stay at eight teams "after careful consideration and a thorough vetting process."

Arizona State and MSU-Mankato both had formally applied for membership in the eight-team league, which started play in the fall of 2013. Arizona State, a start-up program about to embark on its second Division I season, does not currently have a conference home. MSU-Mankato is a member of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, which has struggled financially.

Commissioner Josh Fenton said in a statement: "We will continue to be attentive to the college hockey landscape and any future changes that may come. However, our focus right now is guided by what we can do to strengthen our current membership into the future."

Fenton notified Arizona State and MSU-Mankato on Wednesday of the league's decision. Both schools paid the league a $20,000 application fee, which will be returned to the schools minus some expenses for travel and processing the application.

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MSU-Mankato sent a statement via Twitter saying: "Officials at Minnesota State acknowledge information released earlier this afternoon by the National Collegiate Hockey Conference regarding membership expansion. At this time, Minnesota State declines any comment regarding the NCHC's statement."

Fenton said league members have not said specifically how long they want to close the door on expansion.

"We don't have a timetable for re-opening the topic," Fenton said. "It really wasn't discussed. At this point in time, we aren't moving forward with expansion."

The NCHC's current membership includes UND, Miami, Western Michigan, Denver, Colorado College, Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State and Nebraska Omaha.

The NCHC began discussing the topic of potential expansion soon after Arizona State began as a Division I program in the fall of 2015. Discussions heated up this summer after both Arizona State and MSU-Mankato formally applied to the league.

But Arizona State's lack of a viable arena has given NCHC members pause from the beginning, multiple sources told the Herald. Arizona State has said it plans to have an arena in place by the 2018-19 season, but the issue continues to linger with no concrete solutions.

Concerns also were raised that as Arizona State built its program, it could hurt the NCHC's strength of schedule. The league's strong strength of schedule allowed 75 percent of the league to reach the NCAA tournament in 2015 and 50 percent in 2016.

The league also has monitored the landscape of college hockey as a whole. The landscape could be thrown for a loop if the two Alaska schools-Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Fairbanks-fold because of state budget issues.

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Both Alaska schools play in the 10-team WCHA with MSU-Mankato.

Fenton said that league members discussed the national landscape at length, but it wasn't in relation to any one school or situation.

"We've done extensive research," Fenton said on the topic of expansion in general. "This has been an ongoing topic for many months, upwards of a year. Maybe even longer than that."

Last week, the athletics council met in the Twin Cities to discuss expansion. On Tuesday, there was a call with the presidents and chancellors, who ultimately make the decision on league expansion.

Fenton didn't specifically address areas of Arizona State's application, only saying: "We believe, whole-heartedly, Arizona State is going to be strong and thriving into the future. This was more about the current membership feeling that we need to focus on us right now and strengthening our current membership and less about what others do or don't have. We think Arizona State will be very successful in the future."

Fenton said the league will continue to be available to assist Arizona State in its transition.

In an interview with College Hockey News, Sun Devils coach Greg Powers did not state whether his program would look to find a home in the WCHA. The Big Ten has already said it is not interested in adding Arizona State.

"At the end of the day, the conversation about expansion or membership rests in what value is added to the existing configuration," Fenton said. "That's how we tried to view and assess everything, whether that was reflecting upon ourselves internally or factoring in what other opportunities may be there externally."

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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