This Week in D-I Women’s Hockey: Jan. 10, 2008

The late, great Harry Nilsson once wrote a tune about “one” being the loneliest number.

Applied to women’s hockey (and what a leap that is), that number would be four.

As in the small number of programs that make up College Hockey America.

It begs such musical questions as, “When is a League Not a League?”, or “Will You Notice If We’re Gone?”.

In considering the state of women’s college hockey, and the viability of the scuffling CHA, once could ruminate on the old hit by Mental As Anything, “If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too?”.

The conclusion is invariably this. Having a fourth thriving loop to compliment the established ones — Hockey East, ECAC, WCHA — is in everyone’s best interest.

“We need that fourth league,” said Brian McCloskey, whose New Hampshire squad has dominated Hockey East since that league‘s inception. “We really do. I think the ECAC is solid. Obviously the WCHA has won seven (NCAA) titles. Our league’s growing, and I can see us expanding. We need the CHA to develop into a solid, six or seven team league.”

Agreeing on solutions for bolstering the six-year-old CHA is another matter.

The CHA features one perennially ranked power (Mercyhurst), one former Frozen Four entry (Niagara), plus fledgling programs Wayne State and Robert Morris.

Bumping up the membership to six teams, the number needed for an NCAA auto-bid, is the conundrum.

“Hopefully it happens in my lifetime,” said Niagara coach Margot Page, who no doubt has placed such a wish on her “bucket list”.

It wouldn’t be a problem, of course, if schools were lining up to ice Divisions-I squads.

But they’re not.

The only new D-I program on the horizon is Syracuse University, which everyone agrees would be a good fit for the CHA. But that marriage has yet to be consummated.

Heck, they haven’t gotten to the flirting stage. Not yet, anyway.

And indie Sacred Heart’s invitation seems to have gotten lost in the mail.

“It’s a growing pain that can be alleviated pretty quickly,” said Page, “if people look at things more globally. You look at the ECAC, Hockey East, WCHA, they all have plenty of teams in their leagues. If they want to, they can create a fourth league. It can be done. Especially with Syracuse ready to go.

“At some point in time, people have to wake up and say, ‘what can we do to help women’s hockey.’ It’s a big picture thing, and I hope people open their eyes. For me as a coach in that four-team league, I see the possibility of that league. Perhaps if we bring Syracuse in, and get one other team, we can wait the two years and get an ‘AQ’ (auto-qualifer/bid). Perfect. But if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. And it tells me that not many people care so much about the growth of the game. Because not many [schools] are going to open up teams if they can’t go somewhere.”

For those already skating in the CHA, the best approach is to bulk up the loop from the inside.

“The big picture is this,” said Robert Morris coach Nate Handrahan. “The CHA has had four teams in the women’s conference for a long time. We’re very solid at this point. The growth of the game is going to help us. I believe that [for] a school like Syracuse, it’s the right fit for them. But obviously, they have to make that decision.

“We’re a good league. We have good teams in our league. Sometimes, because we’re smaller, we don’t get the same recognition. But that’s okay by us. But for the growth of the game, there needs to be four conferences. I think we’re going to continue to exist. We’ll move forward and search for more teams.”

As Page sees it, the problems inherent in operating with just four teams are manifold.

“For me,” she said, “the four team league hurts in a lot of different ways. It’s tough to recruit, when you’re not going to get an auto bid. For us, we have to win every game, because the only way we could get in would be our record. Basically, the only we could get in is if we finish in the top five. From a recruiting standpoint, kids are looking at that, because they want to go to the post-season.”

McCloskey, for one, is sympathetic to their plight.

“It’s hard for them. It would be nice to see the CHA expand, somehow, someway. Just to give it a little more depth, and merit. I think that teams like Mercyhurst, and Wayne, and Niagara, they’ve really hung tough. And they’re icing pretty good programs. But the league is only as viable as its ability to stay competitive and get competition. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve always tried to play those teams within reason. We don’t want them to go south.”

If nothing else, teams in the CHA seem to have honed the edges on their coping skills.

And if you ask Robert Morris co-captain Morgan Beikrich, the current set up suit’s the Colonials just fine.

“If anything, we think of it as a positive,” she said. “We don’t look further than that. We don’t need to. In what other conference can you win two [tournament] games and be conference champions. We’re in a perfect position as a matter of fact. I don’t think we look at it as a negative. I don’t think we should. That’s just where we ended up, and we’re glad to take it.”

Maybe four’s not so lonely, after all.

Not as lonely as three, anyway.