There's been a lot of speculation around the college hockey world ever since the WCHA lifted their expansion moratorium and it came out that the league was interested in adding Bemidji, but was shopping around for a 12th team to join the conference with the Beavers.
Nebraska-Omaha made it pretty clear that they had no intention of switching conferences. Northern Michigan and Niagara have been mentioned as possibilities. But another name that has come up a couple times by fans has been the Air Force Academy. It seems reasonable enough given that Air Force is a nice geographic fit for the league, funding for the program is obviously no problem, and they've had a pretty good team the past couple of years.
I hate always having to be Debbie Downer when it comes to Air Force(see: Air Force hysteria earlier this year), but I wouldn't expect to see Air Force in the WCHA any time soon. Publicly, the school has stated that they are happy in Atlantic Hockey because they want to be in the same conference as Army, and potentially Navy if they ever add a program. Plus, travel costs aren't that bad when you own your own planes and use your own players to fly them.
But the reason I don't think Air Force is a very good fit for the WCHA is that I think they would have a very tough time competing with the other teams in the league. On the micro level, sure they could compete with team's on a game-by-game basis and steal the occasional win. But on the macro level, over the course of a season, or five to ten seasons, I don't think Air Force would be able to keep up with anyone but the very bottom feeders of the league.
There is always tons of anecdotal evidence of the big recruit that didn't work out for a team, or the guy nobody ever heard of becoming an All-American, but over the long run, the cold hard truth is that the WCHA teams that get the most pro prospects tend to be the teams that have the most success in the league.
Two summers ago, I looked at the average finish of each WCHA team over a seven-year period. The results weren't surprising. Minnesota was at the top, followed by North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Wisconsin, St. Cloud, Minnesota State, Minnesota-Duluth, and then Alaska-Anchorage and Michigan Tech at the bottom. Does that not pretty much correspond to the pro prospects from each school? At the top, Minnesota and North Dakota are loaded with top players that have gone on to the pros, while UAA has Curtis Glencross and Tech has Chris Conner(and John Scott has seen about 12 minutes of icetime thanks to the Wild's weak farm system).
Air Force's staff has done a tremendous job of bringing in players over the past couple of years. They're drawing a caliber of player nobody else can really match in Atlantic Hockey which is why they are doing so well. But because of the Air Force's military commitment upon graduation, how many players with professional hockey aspirations are going to sign up at Air Force? Service academies have been known to make exceptions for athletes with the opportunity to play professional sports, but Hobey Baker finalist Eric Ehn wasn't given a release from his military commitment to take a chance at professional hockey. The end result is that Air Force would constantly be at a talent deficit to the rest of the league, and eventually, that deficit would catch up to them.
Is all that to say that Bemidji State will come in and instantly be able to draw top recruits and be competitive in the WCHA? It's probably not likely, but I do believe that the Beavers at least have a better chance at being competitive somewhere down the road.
I would liken the Beavers situation to the WCHA's most recent addition, Minnesota State. Neither school carries much prestige in the state. History and school/town size put them well behind Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth, and St. Cloud. Neither are able to draw a ton of local talent. Minnesota State has slim pickings in southern Minnesota. Bemidji is in a historically rich hockey area, but with Minnesota taking the state's best players, Duluth combing over the Iron Range, and North Dakota and now St. Cloud controlling the western part of the state, there's not much left in an area that is losing population and struggling to keep up in the hockey world.
But what both schools have going for them is that they play in a state with a ton of quality hockey players, and they'd play in a conference where the majority of their games would be played in Minnesota. Bemidji is at a slight disadvantage being 4+ hours from the Twin Cities, but that is still closer than any non-WCHA school. Every year, there are good Minnesota players that end up leaving the state and have success in other conferences. If Bemidji could start to keep some of that talent, they probably wouldn't consistently be one of the best teams in the conference, but they could definitely compete.
Now the only issue is finding a 12th team to join the conference with them. Nebraska-Omaha is out. Air Force is probably out. Canadian schools are still a couple years away. Let's hope somebody steps up to the plate to make this happen.