WIAC departure poses challenges

On the week leading up to a pair of crucial showdowns pairing the current second to fifth place teams in the standings altogether, the four Division III women’s Wisconsin state schools dropped the bombshell that they’ll be leaving the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association (NCHA), effective starting in 2014-15.

Wisconsin-Superior, Wisconsin-River Falls, Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and Wisconsin-Stevens Point will all be breaking off from the current 11-team NCHA conference to join their primary athletic conference affiliation in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC).

The WIAC does not currently sponsor a women’s hockey league, but it will start sponsoring it for the 2014-15 season. The women’s NCHA formed in 2000 and is a single-sport conference that exclusively sponsors hockey. The four Wisconsin state schools were the founding members of the conference that has added seven more teams over the past decade, including Lake Forest, Adrian, Marian, Concordia (Wis.), Finlandia, St. Scholastica, and St. Norbert.

WIAC commissioner Gary Karner released the following statement in a press release on Wednesday:

“We (WIAC) recognize that our decision to withdraw from the NCHA will have a profound impact on the future of that conference. Out of respect for the non-WIAC member institutions of the NCHA, we had no interest in leaving the conference without providing sufficient notice and it is our intention to engage in a dialogue over the next two years that will ensure the viability of Division III men’s and women’s ice hockey in the upper Midwest for many years to come.”

One of the chief reasons for the WIAC’s decision, according to Karner, was current budgetary challenges confronting all WIAC institutions had a major impact on a decision that is deemed to be in the long-term, best interests of the WIAC.

The good news for the remaining seven NCHA schools is that they still have the seven teams required for a Pool A bid (automatic qualifier) into the NCAA tournament. As long as the league maintains its membership, there will be no changes for 2014-15, other than the fact the WIAC schools will no longer be in the league.

The WIAC schools, on the other hand, are left out on a proverbial island right now, since they currently have just four teams that sponsor D-III women’s hockey, which is three teams short of the amount needed for an automatic bid.

There also won’t be enough teams to bring back the Pool B bid, which is put into play if there are seven or more teams that are not in a conference with an automatic qualifier. Assuming the University of New England and Stevenson find homes in a conference and there isn’t a massive influx of new Division III women’s hockey teams, the WIAC schools will be left to try and snag a Pool C bid.

This year is the first year we will have three Pool C, or “at-large,” bids for the D-III women’s hockey tournament. These bids will be awarded to the three best teams as selected by the NCAA committee that do not win their conference tournament based on a set criteria that includes factors such as winning percentage, strength of schedule, record vs. common opponents, and record vs. NCAA-ranked teams.

The feasibility of getting a Pool C bid will be tough, unless one of the WIAC schools goes undefeated or close to it. They might be forced to have to try and schedule games against some of the top East Region teams to try and improve their NCAA tournament profile.

“This was an incredibly difficult decision, as the WIAC schools have had a significant impact on the history of the NCHA. We didn’t just come to this juncture overnight,” UW-Superior Athletic Director Steve Nelson said in a news release. “We put a lot of thought into this decision, making sure we were doing right by our membership and our student-athletes going forward and as a body we felt this was the best decision, to withdraw from the NCHA and compete solely in the WIAC.”

While the WIAC schools (Stevens Point, River Falls and Superior in particular) have dominated the women’s side of things in the NCHA since the conference’s inception, the men’s side has been for the large part dominated by St. Norbert for over a decade.

“This league, the NCHA means a lot to me,” Nelson said in a press release on UW-Superior’s athletic website. “I coached in this league for a long time and I have a lot of love for the NCHA and the teams that compete here. There have been some tremendous battles over the years and the rivalries that have been developed are among the best in college hockey. At the same time I’m very excited about the future. The WIAC is going to give our schools every opportunity to be a power in NCAA Division III.”

The other five schools which comprise the nine-member WIAC that sponsors 20 sports outside of hockey are Wis.-La Crosse, Wis.-Oshkosh, Wis.-Platteville, Wis.-Stout and Wis.-Whitewater. At this time, none of those five schools have stated their intentions of adding women’s hockey. Wis.-Stout is the lone school to have a men’s hockey team of those five.

This announcement reinforces that Division III women’s hockey is in an uneasy state of flux right now.

There are a lot of questions out there with RIT’s impending move up to Division I, multiple hockey schools getting hit with NCAA financial aid violations, as well as Stevenson, Franklin Pierce, and the University of New England currently without a conference to call home.

Hopefully in the end, the greater good for the student-athletes will be the prevailing result, and we will continue to add more D-III women’s hockey programs and accept them into existing conferences (or create new ones if the right opportunity presents itself), instead of finding ways to hinder the growth of the game.