Lately, it seems like expansion and college hockey’s national tournaments go hand in hand. Last season, Division I men’s NCAAs expanded from 12 teams to 16, and from two regionals to four, with great success.
Two years ago, the men’s Division III field expanded from eight teams to nine, adding a play-in game to the slate played prior to the championship. The D-III women started NCAA postseason play altogether the same year.
The year before that, Division I women’s hockey started, with a four-team field. Three years later, it is still four, despite schools adding programs or moving to Division I status. This year, for instance, Clarkson started Division I play. Rensselaer has announced its intention to move to D-I in 2005.
“The NCAA wants to make sure that if we go to eight teams, those are good games, those are good teams,” said Laura Halldorson, head coach of Minnesota. “But I feel strongly that with the added number of teams and the increased parity across the country that if you went to eight teams you would still have very competitive games and you would give those student-athletes and fans something to look forward to.”
The pool of teams at the top tier, playing at the highest level, is larger than it has ever been. There is feeling among coaches across the country that just about all of the teams in the USCHO.com Division I Women’s Poll could be competitive for the national title.
“Certainly there were six, seven, even eight teams that could be here and competing on a very high level this weekend,” said Katey Stone, head coach of Harvard. “It’s time. There’s no question: It’s time for expansion.”
And yet the tournament remains at four. Almost from the beginning, there were calls to move to an eight-team field. Those calls have now reached a crescendo.
“I can’t wait for that to happen,” said Halldorson. “We as coaches wanted it to happen sooner, because we are impatient and we want things right away. But from an NCAA perspective, you have to walk before you can run.”
Certainly, few involved with the sport is against expansion. But the key is in convincing the NCAA, the organizing body that sets the rules for postseason play, of that fact. Cutting through the red tape means it can take time to put any plan in motion.
The good news is, that project is just about complete.
“All of the NCAA bodies that need to approve this pretty much have,” said Carolyn Campbell-McGovern, chair of the Division I Women’s Ice Hockey Committee with the NCAA. “So it’s gone through the process and has not met with any resistance along the way.
“The final step in expansion of any sort for anything in the NCAA is the final approval of the budget, which happens over the summer.”
Could this weekend’s results affect that decision? If the games are lopsided, or if the crowd is particularly small, could that influence approval?
Campbell-McGovern, who is also the Senior Associate Director if the Ivy Group, says no. “I don’t think that they will,” she said. “The groups that look at the growth of women’s hockey, at media attention, that sort of analysis has already be done.
“This weekend might be seen as icing on the cake, in some sense. But that analysis has already been done and it has been determined that women’s ice hockey deserves the expansion.”
So hopefully next year’s tournament will be an eight-team tournament. Campbell-McGovern said that if expansion happens, it would be to eight teams, not to five, or six, or any other number.
Of course, expansion does increase the complexity and expense of the tournament. There would need to be seven games to decide a champion, rather than three, and while three games can take place on one weekend, the growth of the bracket would require an additional weekend to be added to the season.
However, since the locations and dates of the future women’s Frozen Fours have been announced through 2007, those dates are fixed. So an additional weekend of play would have to come at the expense of the conference tournaments.
For some conferences, like the CHA and the WCHA, the conference tournaments already happen two weeks before the Frozen Four, so an extra game, most likely played at campus sites of the four highest-rated seeds, would not inconvenience anyone.
The WCHA and Hockey East, however, had their conference tournaments the week before the Frozen Four this year, meaning that in future seasons, either postseason play would have to be compressed, or the regular season shortened to accommodate the extra round.
But that’s a problem that women’s hockey fans are willing to deal with.
An additional feature of expansion is that student-athletes from other schools would get a chance to play for a national title.
“Ideally there would be four automatic bids from the conferences, and four at-large bids, which will add so much excitement to the conference championship, which is already exciting,” said Stone. “I think we are ready. I hope the NCAA feels this is a valuable commodity for expanding.”
But for all the talk of parity, there is not much evidence of it on the ice, at least not so far.
In the four years of the NCAA title, there have been sixteen bids awarded. Fourteen have gone to five teams — Dartmouth (3), Harvard (3), Minnesota (3), Minnesota-Duluth (3) and St. Lawrence (2).
All three previous titles have gone to UMD. And while that will change this year, with Harvard and Minnesota in the final, it seems the chances of winning it all have been concentrated among just a few teams.
“There is becoming more parity, or at least in our league there is,” explained Halldorson. “We had a head start, and in our league, Minnesota and Duluth have pretty much been the top two teams.
“But Wisconsin finished second this year. Other programs experience growing pains, where it takes a couple of years to bring in a full complement of scholarships. Teams are catching up to each other.
“I think it will be fun to see eight teams in the tournament, because I don’t think you will end up with the same four teams in the end. It could be a little more wide-open.”
Stone agrees that the thrust of expansion is to provide more opportunities to more schools, and more student-athletes.
“There are so many opportunities to play women’s college hockey in this country now that it’s only fair to provide as many opportunities as possible to compete for a national championship,” Stone said.
In the final analysis, things look rosy for the future of women’s hockey, and in particular, on the likelihood of expansion.
“We are confident right now,” said Campbell-McGovern. “As far as we are concerned, it is approved.
“But the final stamp is not on it.”