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North Dakota's elimination of women's hockey could cost UMD and other WCHA schools in the long run

This scene of North Dakota playing Minnesota Duluth is just a memory now after North Dakota pulled the plug on its women's hockey program in March, leaving the other seven members of the WCHA on the hook for the Fighting Hawks' share of the conference budget. (2017 News Tribune file photo)

The death of North Dakota women's hockey in March was more than just a scheduling inconvenience for the remaining seven members of the women's Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

It's a move that could end up costing schools like Minnesota Duluth thousands of dollars in the long run.

The women's WCHA operates on an annual budget of approximately $700,000 per year with anywhere from 80-85 percent of the budget being the responsibility of the member schools, according to commissioner Katie Million.

Million took over as women's WCHA commissioner in July 2016. She said the league will save a few bucks not having to send officials to Grand Forks, N.D., but expenses will remain similar to previous years, meaning a pie that was once divided eight ways, now must be shared by seven — UMD, Bemidji State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, St. Cloud State, Minnesota State-Mankato and Ohio State.

Million said the WCHA is healthy, but the current financial model is by no means ideal. The league has to find ways to lessen the financial burden currently placed on its members, some of which are struggling and not receiving the funding they would normally get, she said.

"We have a great mixture of schools within our league. Some are healthy and others are struggling financially and are looking at every penny and what that means," Million said. "Every penny that they don't have to pay into the league is helpful for them and their program. We're trying to be really careful and think outside the box on how we can help these schools keep those programs."

According to figures submitted by schools themselves to the Department of Education's Equity in Athletics Data Analysis (EADA), seven of the league's eight teams spent more than a million dollars on their women's hockey programs in 2015-16 (the most recent set of data available) and three teams spent more than $2 million.

Minnesota State-Mankato was on the low end of the league at $924,476 while Wisconsin led the way in spending $2,947,792. North Dakota and Ohio State also cracked the $2 million mark while the other three Minnesota schools ranged between $1.1-$1.9 million.

The Bulldogs spent $1,473,693 in 2015-16 — the first season under head coach Maura Crowell — according to numbers submitted by the university to EADA. Athletic director Josh Berlo said the program faces financial challenges much like everyone else at the university these days with the current budget restraints, but the program is going strong.

"We're invested and committed to our program," Berlo said. "We're in a very competitive position as far as the resources we put forward. You can see that by the success that we had this year.

"We continue to try and build the support behind the scenes through sponsorships, ticket sales and donations to maintain our competitive position. We certainly are not the more resourced women's hockey program in the country, but we are better than many and we plan to maintain that competitive position."

Crowell, who returned UMD to the NCAA tournament in 2016-17 for the first time since 2011, said though the loss of North Dakota shook up the world of college women's hockey, she feels her program is in a good place.

"You want to be budget conscious, but for us, we're doing really well," Crowell said. "I think we've always taken a pretty conservative look at things. From a coaching standpoint, I have everything I need in terms of resources."

The expansion question

The quick and easy solution for the WCHA on the surface would appear to be expansion. Why not just bring in another team to take North Dakota's spot? Problem solved, right?

Well, it's a little more complicated than that, which is why the league has formed a committee of athletic directors, coaches, faculty athletic representatives and Million to answer the question, "Should the WCHA expand?"

"To be honest, some of the best advice, which came to me right after this happened with North Dakota, is 'You know what, let's be patient, think about it and make sure what we do is the right next step,' " Million said. "I think putting a committee together and getting a lot of different viewpoints is definitely the way to go."

Million said schools have reached out to the WCHA to inquire about membership, but she wouldn't disclose who.

Based on geography, it's easy to narrow down who could be in the running.

Lindenwood, a Division II school in St. Charles, Mo., that plays in College Hockey America, is the closest to the league's current footprint. Because of their location, the Lions are already regular nonconference opponents on WCHA schedules being a bus ride for everyone in the league, though an especially long one for UMD (10 hours) and Bemidji State (12 hours).

Financially, the Lions would be a good fit, but not competitively. In its short six-year history, Lindenwood is 45-143-14 and has reached the 10-win mark just once.

The next closest schools are in Pennsylvania — Mercyhurst (Erie), Robert Morris (just outside Pittsburgh) and Penn State (State College). All three are members of College Hockey America and all three would be flights for everyone in the WCHA but Ohio State.

Flights are few and far between for most WCHA members, even those with Big Ten budgets.

"It's something we have to be cognizant of," Million said, referencing travel costs. "Does that mean another airplane trip for some of our teams and their travel budget increases? Or is it a bus ride? Or, depending on the travel budget, one or the other? Those are factors we're going to be discussing."

If cost were not an issue, the Nittany Lions would seem like an attractive eighth member being a Big Ten school. Only four Big Ten schools sponsor NCAA women's hockey teams and the WCHA is already home to three of them.

It would be tough to discount Mercyhurst from a competitive standpoint, however. The Lakers' program not only has a .735 win percentage in 18 seasons, it's been to 11 NCAA tournaments, four Frozen Fours and played for the NCAA title in 2008-09. Penn State, on the other hand, is 49-111-20 in five seasons and went from finishing a game over .500 in 2014-15 to just nine wins in 2016-17.

"What's important to me and other coaches," Crowell said, "is making sure if we do expand, we get the right type of program because we are the premier league in the country and we want to stay that way."

Both Crowell and Million said a seven-team WCHA is very doable. It's how the league operated prior to North Dakota joining in 2004-05 with a 24-game schedule and the regular-season champion receiving a first-round bye in the playoffs — which is how the 2017-18 season will work.

The problem with a seven-team league, however, is the sharing of finances between just seven members, plus the difficulty of scheduling 10 nonconference games on a yearly basis instead of just six.

"Depending on your travel schedule, that can be difficult," Crowell said. "I don't think it's an insurmountable task."

Thinking outside the box

When a hockey school like North Dakota — one whose men's and women's teams shared the palacious Ralph Engelstad Arena — decided to eliminate its women's program as a cost-cutting measure, it left many fearing that other budget-crunched schools could follow suit.

Count commissioner Million among that group.

"I got to tell you there definitely is fear," Million said. "There is a fear we could lose another team. I'm hopeful that we don't, but that's my biggest fear, this ripple effect and what that means for women's hockey across the board. It's very scary for me. I hope we don't lose any more opportunities for women to play."

That fear has driven Million to start thinking outside the box this offseason when it comes to generating revenue for the WCHA — a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, meaning sponsorships and donations are tax deductible — to lessen the financial burden of the seven remaining schools.

Million said her goal this summer is to get in front of as many people as she can to build stronger relationships with corporate partners, local businesses and the league's alumni. Million is even looking at crowdfunding campaigns as a way to solicit support for the league.

Berlo said Million has been a great asset to the league. Her passion, commitment and her ability to connect with the student-athletes and serve as a role model have all stood out, he said.

"Her hockey knowledge and background coming from Lake Placid and her desire for us to be the premier league on and off the ice has been exciting," Berlo said. "We certainly face some challenges as all leagues do, but overall we're very, very optimistic and excited about the future of the WCHA women's hockey conference."

Matt Wellens

College hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune covering the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs men's and women's teams, as well as the NCAA Division III programs at St. Scholastica and Wisconsin-Superior.

(218) 723-5317
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