NMU hockey: Scheduling still a struggle for Wildcats in new college hockey landscape

MARQUETTE – Northern Michigan University head hockey coach Walt Kyle is happy to be playing the University of North Dakota on Friday and Saturday at the plush Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks.

However, the terms of the trip are not ideal for the Wildcats and the practice is something WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod is discouraging among league members moving forward.

Northern left Wednesday by bus for Grand Forks, N.D. with an overnight pit stop in Duluth, Minn. They will arrive at their destination today.

Hockey fans in Marquette shouldn’t plan on seeing UND traveling by bus or air anytime soon to the Berry Events Center, however, at least not part of the current scheduling arrangement.

That’s because all NMU is getting in return is a generous payout from UND.

The deal with North Dakota was made well before conference realignment took place, when Northern was still a member of the CCHA and UND was a part of the WCHA.

Les Wong was NMU’s president at the time and having previously been employed as a vice president at Valley City State University in North Dakota, Wong was interested in the Wildcats playing the team then known as the Fighting Sioux, so Kyle set up the deal.

“We’ve always wanted to play the bulk of our nonconference against the old WCHA schools because our fans would like that,” Kyle said. “I think it’s great when we get a chance to do that.

“(UND) is a great opponent. They are always perennially good year in and year out. It’s a great environment every year.”

Kyle hopes this weekend’s one-way trip to North Dakota will spark a scheduling relationship that eventually leads to UND playing a series in Marquette. The two schools haven’t played each other anywhere since NMU originally left the WCHA after the 1996-97 season.

But Kyle wants to avoid two-for-one deals that would involve, for example, two series played in Grand Forks and one in Marquette over three seasons.

It’s something he addressed at Blue Line Club luncheons and in an interview over a year ago, taking a hard-line stance against what he called unfair deals.

“I”m not going to get into scheduling with a team that wants to schedule us twice in their building and once in our building,” Kyle said in a 2012 interview.

“I’m not going to put ourselves in a position where we are chasing a rabbit two out of every three years. I’ll do 50-50. I’ll do it in a fair world, but I’m not going to put us in those positions.”

NMU had to bend on that stance this season when it took another one-way deal – though this one was much shorter and proved to be fairly successful – playing at Western Michigan on Nov. 9-10. The Wildcats earned a win and a tie that weekend.

Northern was originally scheduled to play Alabama-Huntsville in a nonconference series that weekend, but when the Chargers were accepted into the WCHA in the spring immediately for the 2013-14 season, the series was made a conference one and slated for Nov. 22-23. It left NMU short a nonconference series this year, and Western happened to have the same weekend available.

“I’d like to stay away from no return trips,” Kyle said Tuesday.

Kyle said the Broncos – formerly a CCHA rival – have been good to work with since realignment, as have Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha and Wisconsin.

Northern is also in talks with Penn State, but nothing has been finalized yet.

NMU and UNO just completed a one-for-one deal this season while the Badgers and Wildcats are set to play next season in Green Bay with NMU as the home team after UW hosted the ‘Cats this year. That deal – one year in Madison, Wis. and another in Green Bay – is set to renew for 2015-16 and 2016-17 as well.

NMU is also scheduled to play against Michigan, Michigan State and Michigan Tech in the 2015-16 Great Lakes Invitational at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, hosted by Tech.

“There are some schools that have been very good and other schools that just really don’t want to do it,” Kyle said.

Despite positive talks, two things have gotten in the way of NMU scheduling reciprocating nonconference series, such as all the Minnesota schools scheduling each other in nonconference play, leaving no room for NMU like in years past, Kyle said.

The jumbled WCHA schedule has also caused problems, like this year when Northern’s open dates came in the middle of November and December when other schools are in league play.

The result is NMU scheduling nonconference series against conference opponents its only supposed to play twice next year, like UAH. That was supposed to happen this year with Lake Superior State, but the Lakers picked up another nonconference series instead.

Kyle said realignment and the late addition of Huntsville left NMU scrambling to fill out a wide open schedule this year and next.

“It’s really helped our travel conference-wise,” Kyle said about realignment. “I’m not sure how it will affect our travel nonconference-wise.”