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History of NCAA and ice hockey

By Kurt Stutt/Special to USCHO

There is a great deal of confusion surrounding collegiate athletics in regards to a school’s classification, particularly in the non-revenue sports (not football or basketball). In hockey, every school can be classified in three ways:

– National affiliation: The classification of the school as a whole, which depends greatly on how good a football team the school had in the 1930s. Frequently assumed to be based on enrollment size.

– Hockey affiliation: Classification of the men’s ice hockey team, which is usually, but not always, the same as the national affiliation. This is a good indicator of how successful the hockey team was in the 1960s and 1970s.

– Hockey playing level: The actual level of competition of the hockey team. Usually the same as the hockey affiliation, but there are exceptions.

When collegiate sports developed in the 19th century, there was no NCAA or any type of classification. Schools played whomever they wanted in whatever sports they fielded. The NCAA was founded in 1906 to govern track and field events. Its first expansion a few years later was to monitor football, mostly because of the numerous deaths that were occurring each year. Until the 1930s, all schools were equal in the NCAA’s eyes.

In 1937, all NCAA members were officially designated as either a major or college team. This was an adoption of an informal football classification that had existed for a few decades. Major football schools were those institutions that played a minimum number of games against other major colleges, a definition which permitted a degree of circular logic. The size of the school was not a determining factor. The major schools were those that were popular, successful or played other majors (whether successfully or not). The lack of enrollment as a criteria for major status permitted small colleges such as Colgate to become a major school whereas other larger, unsuccessful schools gained college status. As other sports came under the NCAA umbrella, they usually adopted the school’s overall affiliation.

For sports with fewer than normal schools participating, the college/major distinction was generally ignored. Since so few schools played hockey and those that did were in two distinct geographical regions, all hockey teams were considered equal. It was not until the 1960s, when the ECAC, with over 25 members, felt the need to divide itself, that hockey began to adopt distinctions. Using a similar method that football had used three decades earlier, the better and popular teams formed the ECAC Division I and the rest of the schools became Division II. Good hockey schools, like Rensselaer and Clarkson, were awarded major status in hockey although were college status in other sports. Connecticut, on the other hand, was a major school that opted for college status. Out west, far fewer varsity hockey teams meant the WCHA, the only conference at that time, would be a major college conference.

At a special NCAA convention on Aug. 1, 1973, all major schools were reclassified as Division I and college schools were divided into Divisions II and III. This was applied to all sports within a decade, with those college schools playing major hockey being classified as Division I in hockey and Division II or III in everything else, and vice-versa for major schools playing college status hockey. The schools on the college level could move into Division II or Division III as they saw fit. Most took the same status as their national affiliation, if not Division I.

Further confusion arose from the ECAC’s internal structure, which classified what is now ECAC East-West-SUNYAC as Division II and the current Northeast conference as Division III, while the school’s hockey status may be different. The ECAC’s designations reflected the playing level of the school, not the technical hockey affiliation. The East-West-SUNYAC (old ECAC Division II) devote greater resources to their hockey programs than the others and therefore are rated higher in the ECAC.

This rather confusing system of labeling sports results in some anomalies. Merrimack is a Division II school that plays Division I hockey on the Division I level. Rensselaer is a Division III school that plays Division I hockey on the Division I level. Connecticut is a Division I school that formerly played Division I hockey on the Division III level. Over a dozen schools play Division I hockey but are institutionally classified Division II or Division III, while six Division I schools once played at a lower level, but (in name only) field a Division I team.

No one ever said anything about the NCAA would be easy to understand. That’s what college is for.

Kurt Stutt maintains the College Hockey Historical Archives. See the CHHA for in-depth college hockey archival information.

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