How Many Hockey Teams Does it Take to Make a Conference?

This season, Alaska-Anchorage shifted games from the 6,290-seat Sullivan Arena downtown to the 750-seat Seawolf Sports Complex on campus, a move that Athletic Director Greg Myford said saved $200,000 annually. The complex’s capacity ranks below the W.C.H.A. minimum of 2,500 and Myford soon plans to announce fund-raising for an expansion project to increase seating to as many as 3,000. Robertson approved the venue shift, a decision that did not sit well with some members.

Travel costs were another issue. To further cut expenses, the two Alaska programs sought to eliminate the travel subsidies they pay W.C.H.A. schools to come play them once a season. Alabama-Huntsville, which joined in 2013, also subsidizes travel. Alaska-Fairbanks Chancellor Dan White, chairman of the W.C.H.A.’s board of directors, declined to specify figures, but said the subsidies include airfare and some related costs — easily many thousands of dollars.

More than once, White said, it came up for a conference vote. “And of course, with seven teams receiving the subsidy and three paying, you can imagine how that vote turns out,” White said in a telephone interview from Fairbanks.

Two officials familiar with the presidents’ discussions said ongoing financial issues in Alaska concerned all seven. So did lackluster play by certain schools. Alabama-Huntsville’s last winning season came in 2005-06, and Alaska-Anchorage is deep into its sixth consecutive losing season. The departing schools felt those sub-.500 seasons hampered their pursuit of at-large bids to the N.C.A.A. Tournament, where strength of schedule is a factor. Under its current configuration, the W.C.H.A. has yet to win an N.C.A.A. title. The last came in 2011, by Minnesota Duluth, now in the N.C.H.C.

Robertson remains hopeful that one or two of the departing schools might reconsider. Beyond that, the W.C.H.A.’s options for luring new members are limited.

Only 60 institutions sponsor N.C.A.A. Division I men’s college hockey, compared to 351 in men’s basketball and 255 in football, and 59 are committed to conferences. The lone independent, Arizona State, declined W.C.H.A. overtures in 2017. Facility and travel costs make hockey an expensive proposition, and the number of Division I programs has remained relatively stagnant for a decade.