On Feb. 18, four U.S. college players made the final cut for the Canadian women’s national team — Cherie Piper and Gillian Apps of No. 3 Dartmouth, Gina Kingsbury of No. 4 St. Lawrence and Caroline Ouellette of No. 6 Minnesota-Duluth. One college player, Carla MacLeod of No. 5 Wisconsin, was among the final eight cuts.
And as a result this decision, all else equal, Wisconsin should have a better chance of getting into the NCAA tournament than Dartmouth, St. Lawrence, and UMD, in the opinion of Badger coach Mark Johnson.
This line of reasoning might sound outlandish as presented, but nobody’s laughing. The absurdity of Canadian national selections impacting the Frozen Four selection process could become a reality, based on one short phrase in the championship handbook.
“After considering the eligibility/availability of student-athletes for each team … “ precedes the Frozen Four selection criteria. The national team selections are an issue because those four Canadians cannot compete in both the Frozen Four and the Women’s World Championships.
If the ultimate goal of the selection process is to take the top four teams within the bounds of the handbook, and player absences cause a team to drop out of the top four in the eyes on the committee, what should the committee do when the selections are announced on Sunday at 5:30? This is one of several questions raised between Johnson and UMD coach Shannon Miller, who both found themselves on the outside looking in behind Minnesota, Harvard, St. Lawrence and Dartmouth after the WCHA tournament.
“The bottom line is we want our best product and our best teams at the Frozen Four,” Johnson said following his victory in the WCHA consolation. “If you’re not going to be able to send your best players, to me that’s a factor.”
Johnson further drew the analogy with the Minnesota women’s basketball team’s star player, Lindsay Whelan, whose injury in the final weeks of the season was expected to hurt the Gophers’ seeding in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
Although some might view Johnson’s argument as a ploy to try to get his team into the tournament, others think the national departures will be considered, though they won’t necessarily sway the outcome.
“I don’t know that I would want to be the one to make that decision but I do think it will be a factor with the committee,” said Harvard coach Katey Stone. “That’s a tough call, because there are a lot of people at stake … . I’m glad at this point I’m not involved in the process because I wouldn’t want to make that decision one way or another.”
While the philosophy that the committee needs to take the best four teams in March is one viewpoint, there are those who believe the NCAA at-large berth should be earned by objective results and never subjectively awarded based on opinions. They would say the obstacle facing the committee is how to fairly measure the impact of the absences. If St. Lawrence and Dartmouth don’t make the cut, what kind of message does it send to the other players on those teams’ rosters? Were those players not relevant in their teams’ 20-plus wins?
St. Lawrence coach Paul Flanagan and Dartmouth coach Mark Hudak give several arguments against considering the availability of players. Hudak says if the committee considers player availability for the Frozen Four, it should logically consider player availability throughout the entire season.
“If you start looking at who’s available and who’s not available then you need to start considering injuries, you need to consider family emergencies, you’re going to have to look back over the whole season and look at, well, did this team have this goalie and how would they have done and would their RPI have been different?” Hudak said..
Flanagan made the comparable point that if the committee has to consider player availability in terms of those leaving for the World Championships, it should also have to consider injuries over the final week of the season.
“What about if a couple teams get a couple of injuries? That’s availability of players,” Flanagan said. “So they cannot use that, they cannot go there. That’s frivolous I think. What if someone gets hurt on any one of the teams? What if Ruggiero goes down? What if someone from Wisco gets hurt in practice? Is that going to be considered? Absolutely not. So I think that was thrown in there, that should be thrown out just as quickly.”
Hudak made the compelling argument that the players’ decisions are not set in stone. Johnson believed the participation of the four Canadian players in the World Championships to be a given, but Hudak says this is not the case. A case in point is that Flanagan has not commented publicly on Kingsbury’s status for the World Championship, and he agreed that Johnson cannot speak for Kingsbury.
“Apps, Piper, Ouellette and Kingsbury could all make a last-minute decision and say, ‘Nope, I’ve decided to stay,’” Hudak said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen. But to start making decisions based on that, then you’re making it even more subjective.”
If player availability is considered, then Dartmouth and St. Lawrence can still make their case. Dartmouth beat No. 2 Harvard twice while missing Piper for the third period of one game and the entirety of the second game. Dartmouth also split No. 1 Minnesota when missing two of its second-line players. St. Lawrence’s time without Kingsbury included a split with No. 7 UNH. But neither coach wants the issue to get that far.
“The teams that meet the criteria should be going,” Hudak said.
That’s Not All
While availability of players was the issue that had the most language to back it up in the handbook, the Wisconsin and UMD head coaches raised several other selection issues on their behalf.
Another suggestion by Johnson was that having Wisconsin in the tournament would improve the exposure of the sport.
“I think it would be great for the sport to see another team, a young team come in and get a chance to compete in the NCAA tournament,” Johnson said. “It would be a feather in our cap, but I think it would help promote the sport … . For our seniors who have been close the last couple years, they’ve been very close, I would like to see it for them, not for me personally, and for the growth of women’s hockey to see some new blood in there.”
The two eastern coaches who made the Frozen Four last year did not agree that new blood should be a factor.
“I think it’s better for the sport to put the four top teams in there,” Hudak said. “That’s the unfortunate part of it that only four get in there, and I think more than four deserve a shot at the national title. But everybody does have a shot. If and when we expand, that will solve a lot of this.”
“I think the best four teams need to be there whether they’re consistently over the past couple of years the same teams,” Stone said. “For me, it’s not about new blood, it’s about who deserves the right to be there, and there’s criteria for that.
“You’re very fortunate when you have a situation like last year where there was a tremendous four team field with unbelievable athletes that showcased the sport. That’s not going to happen all the time. I think we would do a disservice to our game if we don’t continue to put the best four teams until it expands.”
Another fact working against Johnson’s point is that Harvard, Dartmouth and St. Lawrence have not been in the Frozen Four every season. None of them made the tournament in 2002. St. Lawrence, which appears to be the team most within reach of Wisconsin, hasn’t made the tournament since 2001.
The ‘We Can Play With Them’ Argument
Miller’s primary line of defense was based on her opinion of her team’s on-ice performance. Her argument went along these lines — Minnesota is the best team in the country, better than any of the teams in the East. Miller believes her team proved it could play with the Gophers in their three defeats.
Her resulting conclusion: “I think the fact that we can play with them tells you we probably are equal to the top three teams in the East.”
Further supporting her case was captain Caroline Ouellette, who said she would give anything to play St. Lawrence again. UMD split the series with the Saints, winning the second game 5-0, but dropping the first 3-2. Rachel Barrie stopped all 25 UMD shots in the first two periods.
“Did you look at the shots that game?” Miller said. “We were in their zone the whole game. Their goalie was un-freakin-believable. But you know, the goalie’s a player.”
These kind of arguments shouldn’t carry much weight with the committee, however, even though Miller is a member. The criteria in the handbook are based on actual wins and losses, not subjective measures of who can play with whom.
Sending Out an S.O.S.
Miller’s other main line of reasoning involved S.O.S. No, not “Save Our Ship,” as in UMD’s fourth championship. More like “Strength of Schedule.”
Here was Miller’s argument: “We’re fifth in the country right now, and we have played the strongest schedule in the country. What if we played a weaker schedule? Would we be ranked fourth? Would we be ranked third? We’ve played the strongest schedule in the country, and we’re ranked No. 5 … No one has done as well against the top four teams in the country as we have
“If St. Lawrence loses to Dartmouth, I don’t know what the computer’s going to spit out. If it spits us out tied for fourth, you’ve got to hope the committee’s going to take the team that’s played the strongest schedule in the country.”
What Miller is implying here is that the NCAA selection criteria are not giving her team enough credit for playing the strongest schedule in the country. If so is that enough to get her team past St. Lawrence?
To try to determine whether St. Lawrence would have been ranked lower had it played a schedule as difficult as UMD’s, let’s compare the two teams’ performances against the top 10 teams in the D-I women’s PairWise Rankings:
UMD’s season series vs. the top 10
Series Lost: Minnesota, Harvard
Series Split: Dartmouth, St. Lawrence, Wisconsin
Series Won: None
St. Lawrence’s season series vs. the top 10
Series Lost: Harvard
Series Split: New Hampshire, Mercyhurst, Brown, UMD
Series Won: Dartmouth, Princeton
As the results indicate, St. Lawrence performed better than UMD against the top 10 teams. In fact, UMD didn’t win a season series against any team ranked higher than No. 13 Ohio State in the PairWise. There’s no evidence here that St. Lawrence would be ranked lower had it played a stronger schedule.
It turns out that much of the gap between St. Lawrence and UMD’s strength of schedules is a result of differences in the winning percentages of the weakest opponents in each team’s schedule. In other words, UMD is effectively arguing for its inclusion on the basis that Bemidji State is a tougher opponent than Union. Although perhaps again, Miller was not measuring performance in terms of wins and losses.
And as for Miller’s claim that UMD has the best results against top four teams, let’s compare the records of the top four teams and UMD against each other. The numbers speak for themselves.
Record vs. Top Four and UMD
1. Minnesota 5-2-0
2. Harvard 3-2-1
3. Dartmouth 4-4-0
4. St. Lawrence 3-3-0
5. UMD 3-7-1
The S.O.S. Shouldn’t Matter Argument
Johnson didn’t make the same argument as Miller for obvious reasons — his team didn’t play a difficult nonconference schedule. Johnson argues against that being a factor.
“People look at our schedule, and say our schedule’s not that strong, but when you make schedules, you don’t certainly know how teams are going to be, and there a lot of factors when you put a schedule together,” Johnson said.
But consider that the teams on Wisconsin’s nonconference schedule were Vermont, Maine, Northeastern and Niagara. The teams’ combined win percentage last year was 35 percent. This year it was 36 percent (pre-Hockey East tournament). It’s true that Niagara won far fewer games than a year ago, but that was more than balanced by Northeastern winning more games than a year ago. Vermont and Maine were about where they were last season.
Not only did the Badgers play a weak nonconference schedule, they did not win it out. The two ties with Northeastern, in particular, hurt the Badgers because the Huskies were a common opponent of St. Lawrence. Having not beaten Northeastern when given the chance, the Badgers have themselves to blame more than their schedule.
While Johnson and Miller are, in one view, reaching for arguments, anyone can sympathize with them wanting what’s best for their teams. Miller has won three NCAA titles as a coach, and Johnson won the 1977 men’s championship as a freshman. Both understand the thrill of winning a national title and want all the players on their current rosters to feel the same.
It’s also unfortunate for them that the tournament could not be expanded to eight teams, because then they would unquestionably have something to play for. But for now, they can only hope.
“Someday we’re going to have eight teams and it’s going to be a great tournament,” Johnson said. “For those four teams or five teams that haven’t been to the NCAAs it’s just going to excite their program, it’s going to excite the people that follow them, it’s going to excite their university because that’s the prize, that’s the end.
“You can win your conference title and your playoff championship, but everyone will trade those in dearly for the NCAA. I’ve won it as a player, and it’s special, so as we get more teams involved it’s going to take this sport and really give it a shot in the arm.”