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ASU Hockey: Which conference will the NCAA team join?

Arizona State hockey will either join the WCHA or NCHC in 2017.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona State announced its club hockey team would be elevated to NCAA status Tuesday, leading to speculation as to what its schedule would look like.

The plan is currently for the Sun Devils to play next season as a hybrid ACHA-NCAA season, facing opponents from both. It means, for now at least, the Cactus Cup will not be dead, as the Sun Devils will play at least one series, presumably at home, against rival Arizona. Other possibilities of ACHA opponents would be Minot State, with which Arizona State has developed a good rivalry, and soon-to-be former conference rivals Oklahoma and Central Oklahoma.

In 2016-17 Arizona State will transition fully to NCAA and play conference-independent. Whether or not Arizona makes it onto the schedule or not remains to be seen.

Three years from now in 2017-18 the Sun Devils will join a conference and two stand out as the most likely landing spots. The Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) has shown interest, as has the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC). It is to be determined which one Arizona State chooses.

Of the two, the NCHC would boost Arizona State's profile the most. It would guarantee games against one of the NCAA perennial powerhouses in North Dakota, a school with 20 Frozen Four appearances and seven national titles. Last season North Dakota lost in the Frozen Four to Minnesota.

Geographically the NCHC makes sense as well. Included in it are Colorado College and the University of Denver, the two closest schools to Tempe in either the NCHC or WCHA. The third-closest, Nebraska-Omaha, is also an NCHC school.

The NCHA is the more popular conference as far as fan attendance as well. Last season the most popular WCHA team was Bemidji State with an average of 3,562 fans per game, according to U.S. College Hockey Online. That ranked 22nd in the NCAA.

Among NCHC teams that ranked above Bemidji State in attendance include St. Cloud State (16th in NCAA), Denver (11th), Minnesota-Duluth (sixth), Nebraska-Omaha (fifth), Colorado College (fourth) and North Dakota, which ranked second in the NCAA with an average of 11,338 fans per game.

As for the WCHA, it would prove a quicker path to the NCAA tournament, albeit with much weaker competition. The NCHC is littered with former WCHA teams, including Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota and St. Cloud State, all of which left the WCHA after the 2012-13 season to form the NCHC.

The last WCHA team to win the national tournament was Minnesota-Duluth in 2011 but is now in the NCHC. The most recent team to win a national championship that is currently in the WCHA was Lake Superior State in 1994, back when it was in the now-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association.

Arizona State hockey has never backed down from a challenge. Prior to the 2013-14 Arizona State was a charter member of the Western Collegiate Hockey League (WCHL) which included some of the best teams in the nation. Currently the Sun Devils are ranked No. 2 in the ACHA and are joined in the rankings by WCHL rivals No. 1 Central Oklahoma, No. 6 Oklahoma, No. 16 Arizona and No. 21 Colorado. Colorado State is the only unranked WCHL team.

The NCHC is still in its infancy, as this is only its second season of existence. It would love to take a high-profile team like Arizona State, and if the school has its wish, the feeling will be mutual. Watch for the Sun Devils to play 2017-18 as an NCHC member.