The newly expanded eight-team NCAA women’s hockey tournament in 2005 will be the first to award automatic bids, pending approval during the Sept. 21-22 meeting of the D-I Championships and Competition Cabinet. The ECAC, the WCHA and Hockey East were the three conferences recommended for automatic qualification, according to the recently released meeting agenda.
Women’s hockey is presently the only NCAA D-I sport that lacks automatic conference bids for its tournament, and neither of its two youngest conferences-Hockey East and College Hockey America-have been among the four teams selected for NCAAs in their two-year histories. Approval of the recommendation would guarantee national championship opportunities for three of the four conferences and ensure all their teams have NCAA possibilities in March. Although College Hockey America remains two teams short of the six needed to qualify for automatic qualification, its members will have greater championship opportunities than the previous two seasons because of the tournament’s expansion to eight teams.
The recommendation for automatic conference bids was spurred by the NCAA tournament expansion, which allows for five at-large qualifiers in the presence of automatic conference bids instead of just one. The NCAA Women’s Hockey Committee’s only present tournament selection constraint-picking at least one team each from the East and the West-has been inconsequential for the first four tournaments. In adopting only this restriction in 2001, the NCAA departed from the policy of USA Hockey, which ran the first three national collegiate women’s championships. USA Hockey awarded autobids to the ECAC and WCHA postseason champions and the ECAC regular season champion in 2000.
The autobids and NCAA tournament expansion were made possible by the increase in women’s hockey sponsorship by clubs, schools and conferences and increasing attendance and receipts through the first three NCAA women’s Frozen Fours, highlighted by the sellout of the 2003 final between Minnesota-Duluth and Harvard. Women’s college hockey growth and other tournament expansions left the sport matching women’s water polo for the lowest D-I percentage of tournament bids relative to number of participating schools.
Women’s hockey and women’s water polo were the two sports approved for tournament expansion for the 2004-05 NCAA fiscal year. Neither sport encountered noticeable resistance after the initial recommendation by their respective championship committees to expand from four teams to eight teams and the approval from the D-I Championships and Competition Cabinet in Sept. 2003. The final rubber stamps were added by the D-I Management Council in July and the D-I Board of Directors on Aug. 5. At an estimated cost of $338,800, the women’s hockey expansion was the largest allocation for a single sport in the $1.5 million budget increase for D-I championships-a price tag nearly three times as large as the water polo expansion.
The combination of autobids and tournament expansion will alter the competitive landscape of women’s college hockey in March. The automatic bids will provide for higher stakes in the conference tournaments across all teams. The expansion will increase the exposure of the NCAA tournament from the Frozen Four host city to four NCAA quarterfinal campus sites, which will be played on March 18 and March 20, dependent on the wishes of the host institutions. Because the requested travel budget for the expanded tournament was estimated by doubling the actual travel expenses for the 2003 tournament, the NCAA will have as much financial flexibility to transport four teams to the quarterfinal host sites as it did in transporting four teams to any previous Frozen Four.
In addition to creating automatic bids, the Women’s Ice Hockey Committee is recommending that the Championships and Competition Cabinet move the women’s Frozen Four to the weekend prior to the NCAA men’s hockey regionals, effective in 2007. The committee believed that conflicts between the men’s and women’s tournaments may have been one significant factor in the decline of women’s Frozen Four attendance in 2004 relative to 2003. The proposal would force conference finals to be played on or prior to the weekend of March 2-4 in 2007.
A third action item from the Women’s Ice Hockey Committee is to name Steve Metcalf, associate director of athletics at New Hampshire, to the committee chair position, replacing the Ivy Group’s Carolyn Campbell-McGovern, whose term expires Sept. 1. The Ivies will still be represented on the Women’s Ice Hockey Committee by Harvard coach Katey Stone, whose three-year term was approved at the last Championships and Competition Cabinet meeting. Stone’s approval comes following the expiration of her term on the NCAA Hockey Rules Committee, the first ever served by a women’s coach, and her seat there will be filled by Brown coach Digit Murphy. UMD coach Shannon Miller and Ohio State coach Jackie Barto are the other two members of the Women’s Ice Hockey Committee.