As the only women’s NCAA Division-I hockey conference without a compass direction in its name, it is fitting that College Hockey America references the entire country. No matter where a D-I program has popped up of late, they have found a place in the CHA.
The CHA’s roots stretch back to the Great Lakes Women’s Hockey Association, whose name had a limiting geographical reference, but the GLWHA provided a home for teams that had none.
“Findlay, Wayne State, and [Mercyhurst] handcrafted a schedule, and at least it was enough to get us rolling with things,” said Mercyhusrt coach Mike Sisti. “That led to the Great Lakes league, and that led to our next couple of leagues we formed with many members kind of coming and going.”
Sisti, starting his 13th season with Mercyhurst, has seen all the comings and goings. After a couple years as the GLWHA, the original three teams were joined by Niagara in 2002 to compose the first CHA.
Prior to the 2004-05 season, the rate of fluctuation increased. After two years as an independent, Quinnipiac became the fifth member of the CHA, and expansion looked certain.
“We had just had Ohio State leave the WCHA to join our league, and two weeks later out of the blue Findlay instantly folded,” said Sisti. “It wasn’t a statement that they’ll fold next year, it was just a statement out of the blue, and bam, they were done.”
Minus the in-state rival promised by the presence of Findlay, Ohio State reconsidered the move and retreated back into the WCHA. The CHA wound up with Quinnipiac replacing Findlay, no addition of Ohio State, and stuck on four teams rather than reaching the coveted goal of six, the threshold for the NCAA granting a conference an automatic qualifier for the national tournament.
The next season, the revolving door continued to turn. Quinnipiac moved to the ECAC and was replaced by the new Robert Morris Colonials. The quartet of Mercyhurst, Niagara, Robert Morris, and Wayne State soldiered on until Syracuse joined in 2008, and the CHA had finally grown to more than four teams.
No matter the composition, one fact has remained unchanged — the league has consisted of Mercyhurst and some teams chasing them with little success. The Lakers have won the CHA tournament all nine times, and they’ve been the regular season champions each year as well, though Wayne State did manage to claim a share of that honor in 2007-08.
For Mercyhurst, at least in part thanks to their domination of the CHA, the lack of an automatic-bid to the NCAA tournament has not proven an insurmountable obstacle.
“Our goals were to try to win an awful lot of games, play everyone straight up, and hope that at the end of the season when the smoke cleared, we’d be good enough to earn a place in the tournament,” Sisti said. Fortunately, we’ve been able to do that rather consistently. The auto bid was never something that defined us or was big.”
The Lakers have qualified for the NCAA tournament in each of the seven seasons it has had an eight-team field, joining Minnesota-Duluth as the only program to do so.
The 2011 offseason proved to be another turbulent one for the CHA. Lindenwood moved its athletics to D-I, including women’s hockey, Penn State added women’s ice hockey, and the CHA looked to be a likely conference destination for both.
Having viewed the CHA from the outside while at St. Lawrence, and only a member of the conference since becoming coach of Syracuse in 2008, Paul Flanagan admits to being shocked when amidst such positive developments for the league, Wayne State announced its decision in May to discontinue women’s hockey.
“I think a bit of a copout, maybe, from Wayne State’s administration,” Flanagan said.
Sisti had been through it already.
“It did look like with Penn State coming in and possibly Lindenwood, all of the struggles over the past were coming together pretty nicely, so it was just awful timing, much like the Findlay fold. Wayne State surprisingly kind of did the same exact thing. I just feel bad for the kids; it’s a tough situation.”
With the announcements in September that Penn State has been admitted into the league and Lindenwood has applied to the CHA as well, the conference may have finally achieved its elusive six-team configuration.
“I think that we felt joining the league as a newcomer four years ago that you get some name recognition with a school with big-time athletics, and certainly now with Penn State added to that, with Mercyhurst being a perennial power, and Robert Morris and Niagara being well known within our sport, that there’s a lot of good things happening,” Flanagan said.
The desired automatic bid for the conference champion to the NCAA field will likely have to wait at least a couple more seasons once the expansion occurs. According to the “2011-12 NCAA Division I Manual,” bylaw 126.96.36.199, requirements a, b and c, a conference needs six active NCAA members that have competed in the same conference for two seasons in order to qualify, excluding provisional members. Per a release on Lindenwood’s site, they will not become a full NCAA member until 2013-14.
Regardless of when the CHA is granted its automatic qualifier, it will have no impact on the national picture if Mercyhurst remains the 500-pound gorilla sitting atop the conference and dominating the competition.
“I guess what I’m proud of over the years is miraculously we haven’t had a down year, despite who we’ve lost, and we’ve lost some great players,” Sisti said. “Some might wonder how long can that last; I’d like it to last as long as possible.”
Obviously, the rest of the conference has a different wish.
“The last couple years with Mercyhurst being such a prominent team in our league, it’s been us against them, so to speak, for the other teams,” Flanagan said. “Somebody has got to knock them off.
“Two years ago, it was 1-1 with three minutes to go in the championship game. Had [Syracuse] been able to knock them off, it would have been a great accomplishment, but we would have been done. Then we came close again last year, 5-4 in the championship game. It’ll add so much more luster to not only our regular season, but our playoffs.”
Before teams can consistently compete with the Lakers on the ice, they have to be able to recruit comparable student athletes, and Flanagan sees improvement in that area in recent years.
“I don’t know if there’s necessarily that many more elite players, but there’s certainly more good players,” he said. “They all can’t go to certain schools, school X, Y, or Z.”
Now that the CHA has achieved growth, it may continue growing.
“I know that there are one or two other schools that they are in discussions with,” Flanagan said. “Even the commissioner is pretty tight-lipped with us, but he’s working very hard and it’s exciting for our league.”
“I know that RIT would certainly be a natural, but they have some of their issues with the D-III to D-I and the legislation of their women’s team,” Sisti said. “I know there has been a lot of talk for a long time with Holy Cross. Those talks are always there, it’s just a matter of those schools kind of trying to define the direction that they want to go in and also overcome any obstacles that are there.”
Overcome obstacles, just like the CHA has done over the years.