Finding a new home: Tommies to compete in NCHC in 2026-27

St. Thomas captain Lucas Wahlin prepares to deliver a check to St. Cloud State’s Jack Peart during a game last October in Mendota Heights. (Photo by Shannon Stieg)

By Ryan Stieg 

Just three years ago, the St. Thomas men’s hockey program started a huge journey as it made the leap from Division III to Division I and now, the Tommies have made another big move, this time to a new conference.

After spending its first three seasons at the DI level in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA), UST is moving over to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) for the 2026-27 season. Many speculated that the Tommies would eventually try to move to the NCHC, but few probably thought it’d happen so soon.  

“I think this happened fairly quick,” UST head coach Rico Blasi said Wednesday night. (UST athletic director) Dr. (Phil) Esten brought me into the loop a few days ago and it kind of went from there. When the invitation came to our table, it was something that we had to discuss and make sure that we’re where we need to be in terms of where we are with our program. Ultimately, there were a lot of factors that came into the decision, but we’re honored for the opportunity to be in the NCHC and to continue to build our program. We’ve got some steps still that we have to take, but this is a good step forward as well.”  

In a statement released by the NCHC, league commissioner Heather Weems said that the league athletic directors engaged in meetings during the league meetings in Naples, Florida about the conference’s “vision and goals in the current NCAA landscape, including membership.” Weems also said in that same statement that UST’s location in the Twin Cities was a central location for the NCHC’s footprint and the new Lee and Penny Anderson Arena made the Tommies an “ideal fit.” With the addition of Arizona State this fall, the NCHC will now have 10 teams.  

“We’re a private Catholic institution in a major city and I think that brings a lot to the table, especially when you think about our academic reputation and what we stand for as a university,” Blasi said. “The alumni base, the support we have and then when you add the new arena to it, I think it all comes together.” 

The NCHC has won six of the last eight national championships with Denver being the most recent champion, winning its 10th title in April. So the Tommies are heading into a tougher conference and will need to be ready when the move occurs. They’ve already made a lot of progress in a short period of time as they picked up their first win over a Top 10 team last year (over NCHC member St. Cloud State) and they took second place in the CCHA standings after finishing in seventh the year before.

“I think being in the league comes with some notoriety with that, but still for us, it’s a building process,” Blasi said. “We still have a ways to go. This year will be our first year with full scholarships, so we still have to continue to build our program within our identity and within our culture so that we can be competitive in the NCHC. That’s our goal here in the next few years is to make sure that we’re at that point. We’ve got a long way to go. We’re very thrilled and honored to be part of such a prestigious league. They’ve had great success in the national tournament and on the national scene in terms of nonconference. We have to be ready to do our part to help the conference as well.” 

Blasi said he told his players Wednesday morning about the move to the NCHC and he said the players were excited, even though some won’t be around to compete in it.  

“There’s two years still, we think, to play in the CCHA and there’s some guys that won’t play in it obviously, but what I said to the team was this is really an important step for our program and that everybody in the room as we’ve continued to build this program at this level has a big part in it,” he said. “So, anything that we do moving forward has everybody’s footprint on it and I think that’s an important distinction.” 

Overall, Blasi said that the announcement was just a great moment for the program and the Tommies were grateful for the NCHC’s invitation.  

“I had a mentor of mine tell me that everything happens for a reason. I’ve really tried to stay home with that and stick that in the back of my mind every time something happens in the world, especially if I’m involved in it, or our program, or my family or whatever,” he said. “This is a good day for our alumni, for our supporters, for our administration, (UST president) Dr. (Rob) Vischer, to our board to Dr. Esten. These things don’t happen if you don’t have leadership at the top leading the way. I’m very appreciative of being able to be part of that and I know our players are. So, it’s a good day.” 

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