This Week in Women’s Hockey: Jan. 1, 2004

Wednesday night we bade farewell to 2003, which proved to be yet another tremendous year of growth for Division I women’s college hockey. It was a year full of landmark events — the first-ever sellout crowd for the NCAA championship game, the inaugural championships for women’s Hockey East and College Hockey America, and the first administrative hurdles cleared in NCAA tournament expansion to eight teams.

With 2004 beginning and winter breaks ending, it makes for a good time to look back on the top stories of 2003. This exercise does more than just say farewell to 2003 — rather it lets us see how the events of 2003 have set the stage for greater things to come for 2004 and beyond.

1) NCAA Championship — Minnesota-Duluth 4, Harvard 3 (2 OT)

Nine months later, the fascination from this game is still strong.

Those in attendance could call it, not just one of the most exciting women’s hockey games they’ve ever seen, but one of the most exciting hockey games they’ve ever seen.

The March 23 event went far beyond the expectations of those who had anticipated it for months and years. The combination of the sellout crowd in the stands and the product on the ice set a standard that the sport can take pride in for years to come.

No doubt this Frozen Four proved a lot of people wrong. You don’t see too many sellout crowds in NCAA sports with a negligible amount of television exposure, and even rarer do you see the kind of talent and passion assembled on the ice that day. There were eight 2002 Olympians and 13 seniors closing out their college careers.

It was also the curtain call for both starting goaltenders as well, though not one person knew that at the time. Rarest of all was that the game lived up to its billing and then some. Those in attendance could call it, not just one of the most exciting women’s hockey games they’ve ever seen, but one of the most exciting hockey games they’ve ever seen.

The final numbers from the game — 5,167 in the stands. 85 shots and 78 saves in just over 84 minutes, one Harvard comeback from a 2-0 deficit in just the first minute of the second period, one UMD comeback from a 3-2 deficit, and one game-winning goal from UMD’s Nora Tallus. You’d be hard-pressed to find a game-winning overtime goal at any level of hockey that was prettier than Tallus’.

To see how the level of play has improved in recent years, try watching Tallus’ goal, immediately followed by the other national championship overtime goal in women’s hockey history — Jennifer Botterill’s from Harvard’s 6-5 championship win over New Hampshire in 1999, two year prior to NCAA sponsorship. The two could not be more different.

In 1999, Botterill’s goal came in the game’s 69th minute, and the wear and tear on the players was evident. In the moments prior to the final goal, Harvard turned over the puck three times and UNH failed to clear the puck three times. UNH players losing their feet in part allowed A.J. Mleczko to walk in cleanly and set up Botterill at the crease for the easy finish.

Come 2003, the play is leagues above 1999 even though it’s the 85th minute.

There’s no sloppy possession-swapping on this game-winner — just a Duluth faceoff win, a square pass to UMD’s Erika Holst, and the brilliant behind-the-back pass to Tallus in the high slot, from where she’s forced to thread the puck between two Harvard players and just inside the right post for the finish. The goal was most deserving of ESPN Play of the Day for March 23, 2003.

An even more obvious observation from the two tapes was the growth in fan support over four years from the scattered fans in mostly empty seats at Mariucci Arena in 1999 to the packed house in the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center for 2003.

The 2003 championship has left the 2004 final with a tough standard to live up to, both on and off the ice. The greatest off-the-ice challenges are filling Providence’s Dunkin’ Donuts Center, an arena with a capacity of 11,500, more than double that of the DECC. Getting fans to come out will take more than just any kind of advertising, but some word of mouth from the devoted fans, perhaps fans who read this column.

Ticket request forms can be obtained from the ECAC web site by clicking here. Make that New Year’s Resolution No. 1 — get the word out.

2) NCAA Championships/Competition Cabinet Recommends Expansion to Eight Teams For 2005

This announcement in September was a welcome breath of fresh air in a sport which has been impaired by a four-team tournament selected at large since 2001.

With Hockey East and College Hockey America having played their inaugural women’s seasons, the time for expansion had come. Distinguishing the four top teams was tough enough with two conferences in 2001. With four conferences, it’s near impossible.

The stage is set for an eight-team tournament with four automatic bids, which will benefit competition in indirect ways. The autobids ensure every conference gets a chance to be recognized at the national level and that every team that makes its conference playoffs has national ambitions at season’s end. The conference tournaments will have additional importance.

Perhaps the most exciting effect is that national quarterfinals will be played on campus sites. For the first time, this will guarantee local exposure for the sport when stakes are the highest.

The hope is that in 2004, the administrative hurdles will be cleared for this to come to fruition. It makes too much sense, and too many people are in favor of it, for it not to happen. But after all, this is the NCAA.

3) College Sports Television Broadcasts Women’s Hockey

CSTV is tough to find for those without DirecTV across much of the hockey universe, but the December broadcast of the first Harvard-UMD rematch was still a huge step forward no matter how many people got to see it. Women’s hockey is just one of many sports outside of college football and basketball with the opportunity to gain television exposure unlike ever before with the launch of CSTV this past year.

Because the women’s hockey championship is just three years old, national air time is not easy to come by, especially with competition from men’s and women’s basketball. CSTV now has broadcast rights to the women’s ice hockey championship, so people around the country will get to see the women’s championship for the first time — provided they get CSTV.

Much like the 2004 Frozen Four attendance, CSTV will not be a success if no one gets the word out. So watch it, love it, and make others watch and love it. Let your cable provider know. Make that New Year’s Resolution No. 2.

So farewell to a great year for women’s hockey in 2003. Thanks to the efforts of thousands of players, coaches, trainers, administrators, parents and fans who made it all possible. Best of luck for 2004.