by Kurt Stutt
The WCHA was born as the Midwest Collegiate Hockey League in 1951 by Colorado College, Denver, Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota and North Dakota. After two seasons, the league changed its name to the Western Intercollegiate Hockey League, which more aptly described its geographical location.
The league was the dominant force in college hockey throughout the 1950s, winning all but the 1954 NCAA Championship. Michigan won six titles in that decade alone. But in 1958 the conference broke up, due to a disagreement over recruiting practices. Minnesota and all three Michigan schools accused Denver, North Dakota and Colorado College of recruiting overage Canadians. This practice did not violate the league's (or the NCAA's) rules, but was not in the spirit of the league. In the end, the four 'M' schools would withdraw from the league. As a consequence, there was no league play during the 1958-59 season.
The Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) was officially founded in 1959. All the schools agreed that the lack of a league hurt Western college hockey. This time, though, it would be a more informal association, allowing schools to schedule whatever opponents they wanted. Denver and Minnesota, still bitter over the previous year's feud, did not schedule each other and would not meet on the ice for over a decade.
The next seven seasons were dominated by Michigan Tech and Denver, who won four and three league titles, respectively. The conference expanded, adding Minnesota-Duluth in 1966, Wisconsin in 1969 and Notre Dame in 1971. The 1960s and 1970s would see overwhelming WCHA superiority in NCAA play, with the conference winning all the NCAA titles except for 1967, 1970-72 and 1978.
The WCHA became more formal in 1973, when the league office assumed all conference scheduling. A plan was passed in 1979 to split the conference into two divisions as a cost-cutting move, but was rescinded three months later. Then, in 1981, Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech and Notre Dame all defected to the CCHA. The loss of Michigan Tech was a double blow, as they took the MacNaughton Cup, presented to the WCHA Champion every year, along with them.
The WCHA survived as a six-team league, then expanded again in 1984 when Michigan Tech returned (with the MacNaughton Cup), and brought Northern Michigan with them. The same year saw the start of an interlocking schedule with Hockey East, which lasted for five seasons. All inter-conference games counted in each conference's standings.
Recent developments saw the adoption of a single-site final four (later, five) format for the tournament, starting with 1988 in St. Paul. St. Cloud State joined as the conference's ninth member in 1990. Northern Michigan won the 1991 NCAA Tournament and North Dakota won the 1997 tournament, the 30th title for the WCHA.
Alaska-Anchorage became the tenth conference member in 1993-94, the same season that Colorado College won the first of three consecutive league titles, the first team to do so and their first titles since the 1956-57 season. Following the end of the 1996-97 season, Northern Michigan departed the WCHA, rejoining the CCHA. Mankato State participated in the WCHA tournament for the first time the following season. In 1998, Mankato State was voted in as the league's newest member, beginning play in the fall of 1999.
Kurt maintains a nice site for College Hockey History. Check it out!