For years, Arizona and ASU were the only ACHA Division I teams west of Oklahoma. Finally, Colorado and Colorado State are moving up from ACHA DII to form the Western Collegiate Hockey League.
In addition to those, Oklahoma and Central Oklahoma will join to form the WCHL, which will give the Wildcats a chance to finally earn an automatic bid for the playoffs.
“It will be great,” head coach Sean Hogan said. “The conference could be the premier conference in the ACHA.”
ASU finished last season ranked No. 3, Oklahoma was No. 6, Central Oklahoma was No. 14, Arizona was No. 20 and Colorado will be getting a new on-campus ice rink in the fall.
Each WCHL team will play 16 conference games, four against local rivals and three against interstate foes. Arizona will play ASU in four non-conference games as well.
There will not be a WCHL tournament in its inaugural season; the champion will be crowned based off of total points.
The last time Arizona was a member of a conference was 1996-97, when it was a Central States Hockey League affiliate. The Wildcats were a CSHL affiliate for two seasons. Before that, they were full members of the Pacific Intercollegiate Hockey Conference. The Wildcats were in the PIHC from 1984 to 1987.
While the WCHL will naturally provide its challenges, the rest of the Wildcats schedule is equally difficult and includes a game against York University. a varsity Canadian team.
Arizona, which finished 2013 as No. 20 in the final American Collegiate Hockey Association poll, will play 25 games next season against that finished in the top-14.
“I think it will be right up there in the top 10 difficulty, which is what we want to do,” Hogan said. “We’re definitely excited about it, that’s for sure.”
Highlighting the schedule will be a Jan. 3-4, 2014 series against York.
“That will be a good test for us, to see where we’re at,” Hogan said.
Other than a trip to NCAA Division I Cornell, Arizona is the only American team that the Lions play.
Last season was the first time Hogan was able to draft his own schedule since 2011-12. Former Arizona captain Brian Slugocki said a more difficult schedule was one of the main reasons the team sought a new coach in 2011.
Though Arizona won 15 games, its most since 2007-08, seven of which were against top 10 teams, it only won three games in the spring 2013 semester and missed the national tournament.
Hogan said he didn’t think last year’s schedule was too tough. The UA played 30 games against top 25 teams, the third toughest strength of schedule in the nation.
“That’s the schedule we need to play to [be] competitive,” Hogan said. “Being as isolated as we are, when we do travel, we want to play good opponents.”
The Wildcats open the season with a nine-game road trip at NAU Sept. 27-28, at ASU, at Liberty, at Central Oklahoma and at Oklahoma.
Then Arizona has a 22-game homestand, featuring NAU, 2012 national champion Delaware, Colorado, Colorado State, 2013 national champion Minot State, Wyoming, Iowa State, ASU, York, Oklahoma, Central Oklahoma, Liberty, and San Diego State. SDSU is coached by former UA star Dennis Hands.
Hogan said they work with the arch-rival Sun Devils on scheduling, since the chance to play established ACHA power ASU and up-and-coming Arizona is appealing to teams.
Delaware, for example, will play at ASU before coming to the Tucson Convention Center to face the Wildcats.
“Most teams that come in want to play both teams,” Hogan said.
Arizona goes on a seven game road trip to ASU, CSU, CU and Minot State before closing out the regular season by hosting the Sun Devils.