Allow me to let you in on a little secret — one that will provide your hockey fandom with additional avenues of joy. One that may even eventually have you wondering where the most emotional, hard-fought brand of hockey is being played.
Division III women’s hockey.
Yes, that’s right — the no-check, small school, female version of the intense game.
First, I must admit, I am a bit biased. I’m a Division III kind of guy.
I attended a Division III school — Potsdam State. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there from a sports perspective. One of my requirements while selecting a college was that it had to have a hockey team. That it obviously did.
Little did I realize that Potsdam was also on the dawn of a basketball dynasty that would produce the greatest winning percentage of the 1980s on any level, as well as five trips to the NCAA title game and two national championships, both of which I was lucky enough to attend.
I was also lucky to have gone there not only when Potsdam had a women’s hockey team, but perhaps the greatest female college hockey player ever — Kathy Lawler, who scored 293 goals and 157 assists for a total of 450 points in her four years playing against teams on all divisional levels. And before you say the competition wasn’t as good, consider the fact that in high school she played on the boys team in Fitchburg, Mass., and they retired her number (as did Potsdam). She was the real deal.
However, it wasn’t just the sports success that made it fun, but the attitude of Division III competition. It was the way collegiate athletics is supposed to be. The student-athlete in the truest sense of the word, going to school like everybody else without any sort of preferential treatment, whether it be scholarships, athletic dorms, or not having to attend classes.
Now, I’m not naive. I know that some schools bend the rules as much as possible. It is no coincidence that some Division III hockey schools have the policy of accepting the Canadian dollar on par to pay for tuition. It certainly isn’t to suddenly market to the vast student population of the Great White North. After all, how many schools without a hockey team have this policy?
And sure, there have been some powerhouses that are able to guide their student athletes into the easy classes, or ones with professors willing to give a helping hand to the star player. I know certain things were going on with the Potsdam basketball team.
Nonetheless, Division III is in a lot better shape than Division I when it comes to corruption and fulfilling the ideal of the student-athlete. Sure, some may call it small-time, but that is exactly the lure.
So it should come as no surprise that not only do I advocate Division III hockey, but I have now become a convert to the women’s brand of play.
What do the women offer that the men don’t? For starters, a cleaner game.
No, not a wimpier game, a cleaner game. Don’t for a moment think that no checking means no hitting. Quite the contrary, and you can see a exciting physical game when the women play it. Sure, you may miss the good solid bodycheck every now and then, but after watching a weekend of women’s hockey, that never bothered me. And what you won’t see is a game degenerate into thuggery with sticks on ice, especially when one team is getting beat badly.
There’s plenty of talent in the women’s game. The players skate, pass, and stickhandle at a level that will appease any hockey fan. Goaltending is outstanding. The only thing that is lagging behind is shooting, but that doesn’t mean the women don’t create just as many scoring chances.
Watching Michelle Labbe of Middlebury drive for the net or Molly Wasserman of Williams speed down the ice or Missie Meemken of St. Mary’s make a great kick-save will convince you that talent is not an issue.
It’s slower, you say. Well, the Division I men’s game is slower than the NHL variety. Let’s face it, no matter how much talent is in the college game, it can never match the skill and speed of the pro game. There’s just no denying that.
You watch college hockey for more than that. You watch it for the excitement it offers, a unique level that cannot be found in the NHL. You enjoy it for it’s own style of play. You watch it for the love of school spirit.
And you watch it because of the spirit and energy the players bring to the game they play because they simply love to play it.
That spirit can be found in spades at the women’s level.
As Williams coach Joe Milan put it, “The ladies really wear their emotions on their sleeves. They come to battle.”
You can see that on the ice. The players never give up working hard — unlike a lot of men’s games I’ve seen — no matter what the score or how lopsided the talent level.
And that’s not all.
“The leagues are growing and the competition is growing,” says Labbe.
Growing by leaps and bounds. There are now full-fledged leagues in the ECAC (19 teams), MIAC (10 teams), and NCHA (five teams) as well as a sprinkling of independents (four teams). And with the addition of teams at Cortland State and next year, Plattsburgh State, there soon could be a SUNYAC women’s league.
Next season, the Division III national championship, after two years under AWCHA sanction, will be officially recognized by the NCAA, way ahead of schedule.
“It’s an incredible game,” says Milan.
Go check it out for yourself. Like I did, you might discover Milan is right.