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Local View: B1G hockey could leave UMD women out in the cold

From the column: "If the Big Ten made a women’s hockey league, the UMD women likely wouldn’t fare as well (as the UMD men have)."

UMD women's hockey
UMD senior goalie Jennifer Harss prepares to block a shot by Wisconsin's Mallory Deluce during a game at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. (News Tribune file photo)
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The UMD men’s and women’s hockey programs have been inordinately successful over the past few seasons, including a combined six Frozen Four berths and two national championships in their last five national tournaments.

But looking ahead, as the women’s game continues to grow, the men’s and women’s futures could diverge — and all because of circumstances beyond their control.

UMD plays men’s hockey in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, or NCHC, which has been the nation’s most successful hockey conference over its nine-year existence. But the NCHC exists only because another conference, the Big Ten, or B1G, as it’s often referred to, created its own hockey league. When Big Ten teams Minnesota and Wisconsin left their rivals in their old conference (the WCHA, which included UMD), some of the remaining schools quickly formed the new NCHC.

Those schools included national powers across the Upper Midwest and West, like North Dakota, Denver, Minnesota Duluth, and St. Cloud State. The new arrangement ultimately worked out fine for UMD: The NCHC has some of the top programs in the nation and has won the majority of national championships since its inception.

But if the Big Ten made a women’s hockey league, the UMD women likely wouldn’t fare as well. Unlike the men, the women are not geographically surrounded by other powerhouse programs. There would be no dominant NCHC for women: Aside from UMD, the national powers are either out East or in the Big Ten.

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Consider the recent preseason rankings in women’s hockey. UMD is near the top at No. 5 — hardly a surprise after finishing last season as the national runner-up. But look who’s ahead of the Bulldogs: No. 1 is Ohio State (last year’s national champion), followed by perennial powers Minnesota and Wisconsin. All three are Big Ten schools.

The only other top-five team, Northeastern, is in Boston. Beyond the Big Ten schools and UMD, no other ranked school is west of Ithaca, New York. In fact, only six of the 38 non-Big Ten schools in all of Division I women’s hockey are west of New York. Five are in Minnesota (UMD, Bemidji State, Minnesota State-Mankato, St. Cloud State, and St. Thomas), and upstart Lindenwood is in Missouri.

But will the Big Ten form a women’s hockey league anytime soon? For now, it’s more of a thought experiment. But it’s not implausible to think that the Big Ten could someday add women’s hockey. As the game continues to grow, the larger Big Ten schools may be well-suited to fund varsity women’s teams. Right now, Big Ten schools Michigan and Michigan State play top-level club women’s hockey .

That presents a bit of a philosophical quandary for fans of the UMD women’s team. Right now, the Bulldogs are in the thick of the best conference in the nation and are routinely playing for national titles alongside the nation’s best teams, weekend in and weekend out. But if the women’s game continues to grow as many of us hope it will, that arrangement may disappear — and fast. Because success in women’s hockey has centered in the East and among Big Ten schools, the growth of the game could leave the UMD women out in the cold.

Of course, Minnesota is a hotbed for high-school-hockey talent. Maybe other Minnesota schools in the WCHA could eventually rise to national prominence, creating a landing spot for UMD’s women that resembles the NCHC for the men.

Unfortunately, that’s far in the distance.

Then again, maybe Big Ten women’s hockey is, too.

Fans of Bulldog women’s hockey, if not women’s hockey generally, probably hope so.

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P. A. Jensen is a writer in Duluth and is a citizen representative on the News Tribune Editorial Board.

Phil Jensen.jpg
P.A. Jensen

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