A commitment like this is something most people wouldn't take on, let alone jump into without much deliberation.
I am not most people.
I've enjoyed college hockey for a number of years, but hadn't kept a terribly close eye on the post-realignment scene. Particularly, the WCHA. That all changed with a trip to Lake Superior State. I'd been curious for quite some time about the town and the hockey program, and on a long weekend decided to experience it firsthand.
I got sucked in.
The passion of the fans, the Lakers team as well as their opponent that night - Minnesota State - had me not only looking forward to Lake State's next game, but also curious about what else I'd find in the WCHA.
I began watching WCHA.tv, first just for Lakers games and maybe an occasional nightcap from one of the Alaska schools, then slowly I found myself following more and more matchups. This is a league full of likable teams and schools, each with their own tradition and history, and I had to experience as much of it as possible. The only way to do that - go there.
That's how my plan was hatched last spring, and as soon as the composite schedule was released I determined which trips were possible for each weekend of the season.
The Minnesota State fans are a festive bunch, with the concourses buzzing and nearly everyone in purple & gold. They celebrate each goal with the "OLÉ, OLÉ, OLÉ" chant best known from soccer matches, and the facility is top notch. The team's banners hang from the exposed rafters and ductwork, with royal purple seats throughout and a massive video board hovering over center ice.
First intermission was spent with Don Westphal, television play-by-play voice of Minnesota State, who is just as kind off-air as on. We discussed the WCHA and my trip on-air, while also touching on the first-period highlights.
A Michigan Tech goal tied it up and it seemed as though overtime was inevitable when a late Minnesota State goal brought the arena back to life with a horn blast and another round of " OLÉ, OLÉ, OLÉ." This is a crew that likes to party, and their team on the ice was giving them a good reason to celebrate. One more insurance goal in the waning moments of the game sealed the victory for Minnesota State, and the crowd applauded and headed for the exits.
I put a few hours behind me on the road Friday night after the game, knowing that an early snow was at least a possible factor in my travel to Bemidji. By late afternoon, I'd arrived in the hometown of Paul Bunyan, Babe the Blue Ox, and the WCHA's Bemidji State Beavers.
Bemidji State joined the conference in 2010 after a storied run in College Hockey America, a conference plagued by membership turnover that ended up eliminating men's play entirely as the Beavers moved into the WCHA. Their switch in conferences coincided with the team's move to the Sanford Center, a 4,400-seat arena that provides an experience on-par with much larger venues.
The concourses of Sanford Center have colorful tile floors, wide walkways and high, arched ceilings. In this regard it's very much comparable to arenas you'd find in much larger cities. The team shop, The Beaver Dam, is right off the main walkway, and right next to it is the case with the league's crown jewel.
Bemidji State won the MacNaughton Cup last year. That's the namesake of my #ChasingMacNaughton adventure as I trek through the league, observing who is going to bring home one of the most historic trophies in collegiate sports. As the defending champion, Bemidji State has the three-foot-tall trophy on display in a case not far from the main entrance. She's beautiful, and photos really don't do her justice.
As play began the crowd got, frankly, quiet. That said, it wasn't a bad thing – far from it, in fact. This was a group that was completely zoned-in on what was happening on the ice, and everything else was going to have to wait. As a fan sitting next to me at my first Lake Superior State game once said, "When people holler, that's because they don't understand the game." I was reminded of that as I watched this fan base totally focused on, and enraptured by, the game.
Intermission conversations I overheard on the concourse were almost exclusively about the scoreless first period; missed opportunities, anticipated adjustments, and the like. This is a knowledgeable fan base that not only knows the game, but has a commanding knowledge of the student-athletes playing it, as well.
The scoreless play continued until late in the second period, when Bemidji State opened the scoring at 18:32. The goal horn roared, and the fans jumped up and clapped along as the band played the fight song.
"B-E-M-I-D-J-I! Bemidji! Bemidji! Goooooooooo BEAVERS!!!", they yelled in unison. Then, almost as quickly as the moment came, it vanished. As the puck dropped at center ice, the crowd sat down and resumed watching with very little noise.
Saturday night saw me stopping in Fargo, North Dakota, with about a 9-hour drive ahead of me the following day to get back to my home in suburban Kansas City. It was a picture-perfect start to a season-long quest to experience the places, people, and play of the WCHA. I couldn't be prouder of the programs these schools have built, their commitment to education and quality play, and the people at the WCHA office whose efforts to nourish and grow the game never end.
Two down, eight to go.