NCAA Permits Two Seeds for Women’s Hockey Tournament

The NCAA reiterated last week that 25 percent of the bracket for the 2005 National Collegiate Women’s Ice Hockey Championship will be seeded and that any changes or exceptions to the bracket may not be heard until September 2005, when the National Collegiate Women’s Ice Hockey Committee submits its annual recommendations.

“The committee will evaluate the championship at the end of the tournament and any recommendations for changes will be reviewed and forwarded at the appropriate time,” said Troy Arthur, the NCAA staff liaison to the committee, in an email last week.

The committee will seed exactly two teams in March’s tournament, which will include eight teams for the first time since its inception as a four-team tournament in 2001. Seeding two teams guarantees only that those two teams will not play each other until the NCAA final. The policy has drawn criticism because it leaves open the possibility that any other two teams ranked in the top four by could play each other in the quarterfinals.

WCHA commissioner Sara Martin criticized the tournament policies in a Feb. 2 Duluth News Tribune article. The parents of UMD forward Megan Stotts sent a letter dated Jan. 28 to Arthur threatening the NCAA with a Title IX grievance and circulated a petition demanding “the same tournament play-down bracket the NCAA Division I men’s Frozen Four has had, specifically the team seeded 1 plays 8, 2 plays 7, 3 and 6, 4 plays 5.”

The bracket policies for women’s hockey derive initially from the NCAA Division I Manual’s Bylaw, which governs all championships that do not generate positive net revenue aside from basketball. It requires that all championship quarterfinal pairings, including those with seeded teams, are based primarily on geographical proximity in order to avoid air travel. The committee does pair teams based on merit as long as it does not result in air travel that could otherwise be avoided.

The Bylaw allows for the NCAA Division I Championships and Competition Cabinet to approve exceptions. The Cabinet’s baseline policy guarantees the seeding and separation of 25 percent of the bracket rounded up to the nearest power of two. Therefore, 16 and 12-team tournaments get four seeds and 64 and 48-team tournaments get 16 seeds.

The Cabinet can approve further exceptions that allow for additional seeding, but the Women’s Ice Hockey Committee did not request one last September, and it cannot request one until next September.

Several other sports have been granted further exceptions in recent years. Men’s and women’s lacrosse both seed 50 percent of their brackets. Men’s and women’s tennis seed the top 25 percent of their 64-team brackets and guarantee in the first round that teams seeded 1-16 will play teams ranked 49-64, and teams ranked 17-32 will play teams ranked 33-48. But most championships, including D-I men’s and women’s soccer and DI-AA football, still seed just 25 percent of their bracket.

Among all championships including Division I teams, women’s hockey is the only team sport with fewer than 12 teams and a round of competition played on campus sites apart from the semifinal and final site. As a result, it is the only championship involving Division I teams where two of the top four-ranked teams could conceivably play each other prior to the national semifinals.

The women’s hockey pairing policies was discussed publicly when UMD head coach Shannon Miller held her weekly “Chalk Talk” discussion with UMD fans on Jan. 20, and was asked by the audience in attendance if there was a possibility that bracket integrity would not be followed.

Miller has expressed directly to the NCAA her desire that bracket integrity be followed even if the seeding turned out to be an intraconference matchup. But at no time has she gone beyond expressing her desire.

If three WCHA teams were to finish ranked in the top four by the NCAA and no other WCHA team makes the tournament–a scenario consistent with the Pairwise Rankings since December–then the NCAA would have to fly three teams to WCHA schools in order to avoid a pairing between top four teams in the first round.

The costs of flying three teams for the NCAA quarterfinals would put the transportation costs of the tournament expansion beyond the initial budget projections given by the National Collegiate Women’s Ice Hockey Committee back in Sept. 2003. Those transportation cost projections were calculated by doubling the transportation costs of the 2003 Frozen Four, for which two teams traveled by air.

The expansion of the NCAA women’s hockey tournament was the most expensive action item approved by the Division I Championships and Competition Cabinet related to any one sport effective in the current fiscal year. In Sept. 2004, the Women’s Ice Hockey Committee’s only action item had no budgetary impact.

“It is my opinion that the Cabinet has shown its commitment to assisting the growth of women’s ice hockey at the same time being fiscally responsible,” Arthur said.

The Office of Civil Rights, which enforces Title IX, has never required that institutions offer identical programs in any one sport for men and women, as the Stotts’ letter demands in hockey. Title IX violations can only exist across an entire organization.

The NCAA does not receive federal funds, so it is not subject to Title IX, although the NCAA has consistently worked with the federal government to meet Title IX standards. OCR began investigating the NCAA’s championships program after a complaint filed in 1992. It closed the investigation in 2001 while noting that it would continue to monitor the NCAA’s actions.

The members of the National Collegiate Women’s Ice Hockey Committee are UNH associate athletic director Steve Metcalf, Ohio State coach Jackie Barto, St. Michael’s coach Zafir Bludevich and Harvard coach Katey Stone. Metcalf, the chair of the committee, deferred all comment for this article to the NCAA.