History of the Great West Hockey Conference
|A fifth (sixth, if counting the Ivy League) Division I hockey conference was formed in 1986, featuring two schools from Alaska, one from California and one from Arizona. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of geography knew this conference was going to have its troubles while all the participants accumulated phenomenal amounts of frequent flier miles.|
The Great West Hockey Conference was an assemblage of the outsiders. Alaska-Fairbanks, Alaska-Anchorage, U.S. International and Northern Arizona were, except for Air Force, the only Division 1 independents west of the Mississippi River. None of these teams, at the time, was able to join the WCHA, the most logical place to play. So they opted to band together, eliminating some of the scheduling problems that plague all independent teams.
U.S. International, in San Diego, won the 1985-86 championship while only getting one person, Jim Plankers, on the conference all-star team. Northern Arizona, in Flagstaff, promptly dropped its varsity program. The conference was reduced to a bare-minimum of three teams.
There were two reasons behind the loss of Northern Arizona, and later the end of the conference. All four schools had difficulty scheduling opponents due to the great distances between schools, requiring all opponents to fly in and every school to fly out. The southern schools had a second problem. They did not receive the scheduling advantage offered the Alaska schools (and schools in Puerto Rico and Hawaii, should there ever be a varsity program in those places). Opponents playing in Alaska did not have to count those games against their NCAA game limit. Therefore, schools going to Alaska were allowed to play extra games, in incentive to travel there. Northern Arizona and U.S. International did not receive this benefit, putting them at the bottom of the barrel when trying to schedule out of conference.
Alaska-Anchorage came away the winner in the three-team conference in 1986-87; Alaska-Fairbanks won the following year, which was the last for the conference. U.S. International ended their varsity program in 1988 necessitating the end of the Great West Conference. A two-team conference was not feasible.
The remaining schools continued as independents until 1993. That year Alaska-Anchorage joined the WCHA while Alaska-Fairbanks joined the CCHA as an associate member. They received full membership in 1995. But the problems that caused the demise of the Great West Hockey Conference still haunt the Alaska schools -- the high costs of running a hockey program that requires expensive travel. Barring a sudden increase in varsity programs in the west, the situation will not get better.