The Edge of Greatness
After four decades, CCHA will end this weekend
Junior left defender Ethan Graham, right, embraces third-string goaltender Steve Mnich after the Spartans clinched the CCHA Championship and brought the Mason Cup back to East Lansing on March 20, 2006, at Joe Louis Arena. State News File Photo
When Tom Anastos didn’t get the call, he knew something was up.
It was September 2010, and Anastos — now the MSU hockey coach — was serving as commissioner of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, or CCHA — one of the most historically successful hockey leagues in the U.S.
Penn State just announced it received an $88 million donation, which eventually turned into $102 million, to start Division I men’s and women’s hockey programs.
The CCHA had a spot open with 11 teams in the league, three of which belonged to nearby Big Ten schools. It would only make sense for the Nittany Lions to seek membership.
But the call to Anastos never came.
“Once the announcement came that Penn State was going to play Division I men’s hockey, it was inevitable that the Big Ten was going to start hockey,” he said.
Spartan freshman defenseman John-Michael Liles left, hugs freshman forward Troy Ferguson after winning the CCHA Tournament Championship game against the University of Nebraska Omaha. March 20, 2000
MSU's Frank Finn finds himself in a scramble for the puck with a pair of Wolverines Saturday night. Monday Nov. 23, 1981
The Spartan hockey team celebrates its 3-2 victory over the Ohio State Buckeyes in the CCHA Championship game with the CCHA Championship Cup on Saturday at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. March 23, 1998.
Six is the magic number to start an NCAA Tournament-eligible league, and the Penn State program was the final piece in the Big Ten puzzle. It also was the beginning of the end for the CCHA.
The announcement might have been a door closing to the then-commissioner, but now Anastos and the Spartans are eager to open the new door leading to Big Ten Conference hockey.
“As things change, I think Big Ten hockey’s very exciting,” he said. “It brings the big stage to our sport like never before.”
End of an era
More than four decades ago, a few college hockey programs were searching for a way to win a national championship. At the time, there only were two major conferences, and neither wanted newer, independent programs to become members.
Ron Mason, who was coaching at Lake Superior State at the time, took the matter into his own hands and became one of the founding fathers of the CCHA. After about a year of discussions, the first puck was dropped on Nov. 12, 1971.
If national championships were one of the goals of the CCHA, its creators can’t be upset about where the league has advanced. Combined, the 11 current teams have won nine of the past 28 NCAA Championships — two of which were won by the Spartans.
“We formed our own league and, slowly but surely, developed into one of the best leagues in the country, without a doubt,” Mason said.
Mason eventually became the head coach of MSU’s hockey team and ushered them into the CCHA in the 1981-82 season. This year, 31 years later, the Spartans played their final CCHA game March 17 — a 4-1 loss to Miami (Ohio).
Through the years, the Spartans racked up 11 CCHA championships, now called the Mason Cup — named after Ron Mason.
CCHA commissioner Fred Pletsch said Penn State’s Division I program isn’t the main reason the CCHA is ending, but it’s what got the ball rolling.
MSU, Michigan and Ohio State are transitioning from the CCHA to the Big Ten, joining WCHA’s Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The remaining eight CCHA schools will be scattered through three different conferences.
“Ultimately, they said, ‘We’ve got just as many national champions and NCAA Tournament appearances as Big Ten schools,’” Pletsch said. “I think the term they used was ‘like-mindedness.’”
Sunday afternoon at Joe Louis Arena, the final CCHA game will be played. Teams will go their separate ways next season, but the legacy of the league will be remembered for years.
The league provided a platform for many Hobey Baker Memorial Award nominees — akin to player of the year awards — National Hockey League players and Stanley Cup winners, and it won’t soon be forgotten.
“We’re kind of working all hands on deck, an all-out sprint to the finish,” Pletsch said. “We’re trying to celebrate the legacy, as we say. I’m sure that will all change on Monday morning, March 25, when we realize that it’s the end of an era.”
B1G things ahead
Despite being home to 25 men’s and women’s sports, there always was one major component missing in the Big Ten. It sponsored football championships and basketball tournaments but never was able to touch ice hockey. With the sport on deck as the next piece of the conference, associate commissioner Jennifer Heppel said it makes the conference feel complete.
“It’s not often at the conference office that we can add a new sport,” she said. “Internally, on that level, everyone is really excited about that opportunity and learning a new sport.”
Upon joining the conference, the opportunity for the hockey programs to gain television exposure will present itself in the Big Ten Network.
ESPN hockey analyst John Buccigross said the network will be able to brand games as Big Ten hockey matchups, which could add luster for fans who otherwise might not have followed the CCHA. He pointed out that CCHA fans will follow the teams no matter what, but the Big Ten brand could appeal to general sports fans and eventually grow the sport.
“They’re able to package an Ohio State-Michigan Friday night game on the Big Ten Network — that means something,” he said. “Hopefully, it will mean something to people who otherwise might not watch it or might not get into it. It’s part of the Big Ten now, so that Big Ten brand is very important for all the schools and for the sport.”
From a schedule standpoint, MSU will meet each Big Ten school four times a year: twice at home and twice on the road.
Anastos said it’s a very demanding schedule in tough environments, but it gives players the opportunity to develop skills and talents because they will be tested every single conference game.
“I watch basketball and they talk about how tough it is to play in the Big Ten, which it is,” he said. “But just think if Michigan State played at Ohio State tonight in basketball and then had to play again tomorrow night at Ohio State.”
He added that he hopes to continue meeting regularly with past CCHA opponents, with an emphasis on Michigan-based schools similar to how football and basketball schedule.
The MSU hockey team didn’t finish its last CCHA season as it would have hoped, finishing last in the league in the regular season and being knocked out of the playoffs in the second round, but Anastos and the Spartans are looking forward to the fresh slate the Big Ten will offer next season.
“You don’t come here for things to be easy, you come here to get better and not to be average but to pursue excellence,” Anastos said. “I think the challenges that are in front of us both as a program … and as a new league are really exciting.”
Click through below to see MSU players who have won CCHA Player of the Year honors