Might as well fasten a College Hockey America logo to the Purple Eagles’ crest on the Niagara men’s hockey sweaters during this weekend’s monster showdowns at No. 7 Denver, one of the nation’s elite hockey programs.

Niagara will be fighting to verify that the CHA, traditionally a one-bid league come NCAA Tournament time, is worthy of a second slot in hockey’s version of the Big Dance. Both Niagara, currently ranked 17th, and CHA-rival Bemidji State (16th) have cracked the USCHO.com Top 20 poll.

Interestingly enough, while NU fights to prove the conference belongs on the ice, an NCAA competition committee is determining whether the CHA should get an automatic bid in years to come. The league was granted a two-year extension on its automatic NCAA bid after falling below the required six-team minimum prior to last season. A decision from the NCAA on next year’s status is expected soon.

If the league doesn’t get the extension, it’ll most likely mark the beginning of the end for the CHA, which is in its eighth year of existence. Travel and a lack of geographic rivalries make the league difficult to manage, even with a bid. Chances are most teams would opt for an independent schedule, and press harder to get into existing leagues, if the CHA loses its bid.

CHA Commissioner Bob Peters said he hadn’t heard whether or not the bid had been approved, but admitted it significantly changes the league’s future.

“I haven’t received anything official,” Peters said from his Bemidji, Minn., office on Wednesday. “I’m trying to find out what’s next.

“ ... If it’s approved, then it certainly gives us some strength as a conference to make sure that we have that in line.”

Niagara coach Dave Burkholder knows his team can’t control what the NCAA does. But the Eagles can make a case for the league’s validity with a good showing at Denver, which is currently 15-7-2 and second in the powerful WCHA.

The Eagles might have trouble defending during a two-game series that starts tonight (9:30 p.m., RTN-11 TV), but with the likes of Les Reaney, Ted Cook and Sean Bentivoglio, they should be able to match Denver’s fire. Reaney and Cook are among the nation’s top five scorers heading into the showdown.

“There’s no question, teams go in trying to concentrate on those guys,” Burkholder said. “That’s why when Matt Caruana and his line get going, it’s so important to us.”

Travel is nothing new to Niagara, which has played just eight of its 22 games at Dwyer Arena. Surprisingly, Burkholder thinks the road is a good place for his team.

“The kids seem to have fun with it,” he said. “Being on break right now, it’s probably good for the guys instead of sitting around all day. I think the guys are really into it. To be mathematically in the thick of it is really exciting.”

Contact group sports editor Tim Schmitt at 282-2311, Ext. 2266.

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