In addition to being a day where we sit down to watch parades and football and eat like we may never eat again, Thanksgiving is really a time to reflect on all of the things for which we have cause to be thankful. That is a long list, even if we confine it to the game that we follow here.
NCAA Division I women’s hockey isn’t perfect, and there are situations where we’d love to see improvement when we contemplate this topic on future holidays.
In each of the past two offseasons, we lost one of our programs. Recent years have proven difficult financially, and painful cuts have been necessary in many areas. That’s understood. However, the manner in which the programs at Wayne State and Niagara were eliminated was particularly objectionable. Rather than announcing that programs were in peril and giving the community in general and the hockey community in particular an opportunity to come to the rescue, each program was dropped in a clandestine manner, as if the goal was not to serve as many student athletes as possible, but only the ones in which the heads of athletic departments had interest. Hopefully, those in positions of power make better decisions in the future, and do not choose to make others pay for their personal failings in running a department.
Injuries continue to be a big problem for our sport, particularly those that bring careers to an end. Concussions are foremost in this area; it’s doubtful that there is a team that has been operating for any length of time that has not had a player forced to give up hockey because she had been the victim of too many or too severe of a concussion. Two examples of high-profile players that have been unable to compete this season are Stefanie McKeough of Wisconsin, the reigning WCHA Defensive Player of the Year, and standout Harvard defenseman Josephine Pucci. Of course, the risk of being concussed is not the only peril facing players. Minnesota-Duluth senior forward Audrey Cournoyer, a member of the Bulldogs’ 2010 NCAA Championship team, played her final game this month and was forced to walk away from the sport when the constant pain from a pair of herniated discs in her back became intolerable. Here’s hoping that advances in protective equipment, training, and treatment can lessen the frequency of these and other injuries.
For those who have given it a chance, we know that women’s hockey is underappreciated. The number of fans attending games and the interest shown continues to be less than we’d like.
There are encouraging signs. It was announced on November 1 that Quinnipiac will be the host of the 2014 Frozen Four. It will be the first Frozen Four conducted east of Erie, Pa., since the 2009 championship in Boston, Mass. Hopefully that will increase exposure in the East, because generally speaking, game attendance has lagged in that part of the country.
Wisconsin set an NCAA record on January 28 when 12,402 fans attended its “Fill the Bowl” game versus Bemidji State. That bettered a mark that the Badgers set a year earlier when 10,668 turned out for a similar promotion against Minnesota. The Badgers now have a new home, as LaBahn Arena opened this fall.
The fan experience has been improved at many venues in recent years. Programs such as UMD, Bemidji State, and Quinnipiac have new arenas, while a number of others have made renovations. It’s common to find features like video replay that were once either nonexistent or of low quality.
For those who can’t attend the games in person, it is much easier to stay informed about teams. The coverage by traditional forms of media remains spotty, but new technology has brought new options. Where once finding out the winner of a particular game meant waiting for a newspaper on the odd chance that a final score would be printed, the Web has brought post-game box scores that eventually evolved to live stats and national scoreboards. Team sites, Facebook pages, Youtube, and Twitter all offer ways to stay current on the latest developments with teams and players. Additional sports channels have led to more games being televised.
The real growth has been in Webcasting of games. We sometimes grumble about the reliability or quality of these feeds, but not long ago any fan who didn’t happen to live within range of some low-powered radio station that offered a broadcast was out of luck. Now I can be miles from anywhere and get a feed on a tablet or smartphone, and people on the other side of the world can do the same. While I do miss the USCHO Game of the Week produced by Brian Schulz, availability of free video from programs such as Northeastern, the current gold standard in Webcasting, Boston College, Quinnipiac, Minnesota State, and Vermont helps to fill the void.
Fans aren’t the only ones benefiting from new technology. College coaches have access to the same sources of information on current teams and players, but they also have a need to build databases on potential recruits.
Coach Nate Handrahan of Ohio State worked with West Shore Technologies to develop an iPad application called SportsBoard Hockey Scout that meets a coach’s requirements, and the Buckeyes staff began using a beta version of the product over the summer. It allows coaches to rate players, take notes, and record voice memos and video. While these functions can be done by other means, the Hockey Scout app also organizes the data, increasing efficiency and saving time. In addition to Ohio State, coaches at Vermont, St. Cloud State, Clarkson, and Yale are also using Hockey Scout.
Scouting and recruiting is a timely topic, because the early period for signing a National Letter of Intent just ended on Wednesday. The following programs have officially announced their signings.
Savannah Quandt, D, Mankato, Minn./Mankato East HS;
Sara Bustad, D, Stillwater, Minn./Stillwater HS.
Kayla Gardner, F, Warroad, Minn./Warroad HS;
Gracen Hirschy, D, Fort Wayne, Ind./Team Pittsburgh;
Halli Krzyzaniak, D, Neepawa, Man./Pursuit of Excellence;
Lisa Marvin, F, Warroad, Minn./Warroad HS;
Amy Menke, F, Shakopee, Minn./Shakopee HS;
Lexi Shaw, G, Troy, Mich./Honeybaked.
Melissa Channell, D, Oakville, Ont./Burlington Barracudas;
Sydney McKibbon, F, Oakville, Ont./Stoney Creek Junior Sabres;
Sarah Nurse, F, Hamilton, Ont./Stoney Creek Junior Sabres;
Annie Pankowski, F, Laguna Hills, Calif./North American Hockey Academy;
Jenny Ryan, D, Victor, N.Y./North American Hockey Academy.
Local news outlets have reported the signings of others on an individual basis, and we can expect more releases by the teams in the days to come. Fans of the Mavericks, UND, and the Badgers can be thankful for their incoming classes, while those that follow other teams may need to dig a bit if they want their thanks timed with turkey.
As we view what is being offered up on the NHL Network and ESPN for professional hockey to date, perhaps our biggest cause to be grateful is that the none of these recruits or the current student athletes have any plans to go on strike. To the best of my knowledge, Gary Bettman isn’t involved in any decision-making process in NCAA D-I women’s hockey, even if recent actions by Wayne State and Niagara smack of something that he’d have devised. Despite those losses, the sport has managed to show growth with new programs at Lindenwood, Penn State, and RIT, news that Merrimack is soon to follow, and even rumors that the state of Michigan won’t remain devoid of a program for the long term.
I’m thankful for our game, the character of the young ladies that play it, and the fact that I don’t have plans to go stand in line at any retail outlet on Thanksgiving night.