A working group that includes Minnesota Duluth head coach Maura Crowell and associate head coach Laura Bellamy plans to present a proposal to the NCAA this summer to expand the NCAA National Collegiate Women’s Hockey Championship Tournament from eight to 10 teams.
The group would like to see expansion happen right away in 2021-22, however, the format change — if approved — would more likely take place in 2022-23 when the New England Women’s Hockey Alliance is on track to gain an automatic bid for its champion to the national tournament.
The 2022-23 season is also when UMD and the city of Duluth are set to host the NCAA Women’s Frozen Four at Amsoil Arena.
“Laura and I have been working on it and we've got a good group of coaches who are more engaged in this topic than we've had engagement ever — that I can remember over the course of my, I don’t know, however many years,” said Crowell, the head coach of the Bulldogs since 2015 and before that a coach at Harvard for five years. “We've got people working hard on it and committed to it and hopefully we can make a massive change for women's hockey.”
A four-team tournament during its first four years from 2001-2004, the NCAA women’s hockey tournament expanded to eight teams in 2005 when the Hockey East postseason champion began receiving a automatic bid along with the champions of the WCHA and ECAC. College Hockey America began receiving an automatic bid in 2015, though that is now in jeopardy after Robert Morris announced Wednesday it was cutting both men's and women's hockey, effective immediately.
Speaking with the News Tribune about the expansion plan last week, Crowell said moving from eight to 10 teams is not only about preserving a balance between automatic and at-large berths. It’s an equity issue for the sport, she said.
In 2022-23, there will be 42 teams eligible for the National Collegiate women’s hockey tournament. Taking 10 teams would mean 23.8 percent of the schools would advance to the national tournament. Leaving the field at eight would mean only 19 percent get in.
In comparison, the NCAA Division I men’s hockey tournament features 16 teams with 59 programs scheduled to take part in the 2021-22 season (in addition to Robert Morris, both Alabama-Huntsville and Alaska-Anchorage have suspended their programs for the time being). That’s 27.1 percent of its membership making the national tournament, with just six of the 16 bids being automatic and 10 being at-large.
“Equity is a big deal,” Crowell said. “It's important.”
WCHA commissioner Jennifer Flowers is also involved in the push for expansion and has been working with the other women’s hockey commissioners on the push to expand the field. She said the proposal they hope to submit this summer to the NCAA Women’s Ice Hockey Committee — which includes UMD athletic director Josh Berlo — and then to the NCAA Division I Competition Oversight Committee, must find a balance between making change and not getting any change at all.
That means not asking for too much, like a 12-team tournament, which would mean 28.6 percent of the schools getting in. According to data compiled by Bellamy for the women’s hockey working group, there isn’t an NCAA Division I sport with more than 20 schools that sends that many teams in terms of percentage to the national tournament.
“I think the membership across women's hockey is being very mindful about trying to get what is achievable and not asking for much more and really just trying to do right by the sport of women's hockey,” Flowers said.
“Just from a percentage perspective with other sports, 10 is the most viable number to still to accomplish expansion.”
Fighting for bracket integrity
Crowell said the fight for equity in NCAA Division I women’s basketball has encouraged other women’s sports to do the same, which is why women’s hockey is also fighting to have bracket integrity — meaning the top seed takes on the bottom seed, the No. 2 seed takes on the second highest seed, etc. — a part of its tournament, just like men’s hockey.
The phrases “competitive equity” and “integrity of the bracket” are currently written into the men’s hockey pre-championship manual when it comes to determining seedings and pairings. All 16 teams are ranked and assigned a seed for the men’s tournament.
Meanwhile in the women’s hockey pre-championship manual, under seedings and pairings, there is no such mention of either. After seeding the top four teams, the committee is instead instructed to avoid additional flights and air travel when placing the bottom four teams.
The result is intraconference matchups in the first round — something the men’s manual instructs the committee to avoid for the sake of bracket integrity, except in special circumstances — especially between WCHA teams because of the league’s geographic location.
In 2018, for instance, No. 2 Wisconsin played Minnesota — which was ranked fifth in the system used to select and seed the tournament, the Pairwise rankings — in the quarterfinals instead of the team that finished seventh, Northeastern. The Huskies were bused to No. 3 Colgate while No. 4 Boston College hosted Ohio State, which was sixth in the Pairwise.
The 2020 tournament that was never played due to the COVID-19 pandemic saw similar manipulations to limit flights with top-ranked Cornell drawing No. 6 Mercyhurst instead of No. 8 Princeton, who instead bused to No. 3 Northeastern. No. 2 Wisconsin drew No. 5 Clarkson while No. 4 Minnesota hosted No. 7 Ohio State in the token first-round WCHA showdown.
Flowers said bracket integrity is something the WCHA is especially passionate about.
“Given the history of the tournament and the ability to host quarterfinal games, it seems like our teams were always just playing each other again, often in quarterfinal games,” Flowers said.
A single-site solution
When pitching their proposal to the NCAA, both Crowell and Flowers said women’s hockey must be mindful of the financial impact expanding the tournament could have on the NCAA as even the men’s hockey tournament — considered one of the few NCAA postseason events to make a profit — has “financial success” among its top priorities under “Seeding and Pairings.” It literally comes right after “competitive equity.”
Their solution — one that could be financially viable while also ensuring bracket integrity — is to do what the NCAA did in 2021 in Erie, Pennsylvania, during the COVID-19 pandemic and hold the entire NCAA women’s hockey tournament at a single site.
Using its on-campus rink for practices and the downtown Erie Insurance Arena on gameday, Mercyhurst hosted an eight-team tournament that spanned a total of 10 days between the first teams arriving for quarantine and the last two departing following the national championship.
Flowers said it was a great experience, one that had everyone thinking what the event would look and feel like without all of the pandemic restrictions in place.
“I think a lot of people would really love to see all teams in one location in a non COVID year when we could have fans, when other teams could be at other games,” Flowers said. “It was a really unique and odd championship because there weren't that many fans and the teams couldn't do much and so they were in the area for a long time without the ability to get out and really enjoy Erie. So I do think there's a significant appetite for, ‘Could we do it when we weren't in COVID?’”
Crowell said the group she is working with has discussed how to host all 10 teams at a single site. It would involve never having more than eight teams at the site at one time and the tournament could be conducted in 9-10 days, like it was in Erie.
To do so, the bottom four seeds would arrive first and play their first round games. The losers would then depart and the other six teams would arrive to play the quarterfinals, which like in Erie would be spread out over two days. The tournament would then transition into the Frozen Four.
“That’s why this year was so valuable,” Crowell said of the 2021 Frozen Four in Erie. “It has been done. It’s possible. Here’s what it looks like.”
Grow the tournament, grow the game
Berlo and DECC Venue Operations/Bayfront Festival Park Director Jeff Stark both said Duluth would be equipped in 2023 to host an 8-10-team NCAA women’s hockey tournament, with two ice sheets right next door to each other in the same facility. DECC Arena — the former home of UMD hockey — could be used as a practice sheet while Amsoil Arena would be used on gameday.
Then there is everything else Duluth offers with all the hotels and restaurants located right by the in Canal Park. Berlo said the university and community would pull off an 8-10 team tournament in a “successful fashion.”
“That’s one of the places that Duluth really shines,” Berlo said. “We’re very adept at hosting tourist volumes. We have great hotel partners. There’s great restaurants in town. It’s an aesthetically, geographically pleasing location year round. We know that those pieces would make it a great experience. I don’t think you’d have to have teams staying very far away.”
Crowell said expanding the NCAA Women’s Frozen Four from a four-team, four-day event to an 8-10 team, 9-10 day event might make it a more attractive event for cities to bid on.
In the 17 seasons since the tournament expanded to eight teams in 2004-05, only eight cities have hosted a Women’s Frozen Four. Duluth, Erie, Hamden (Connecticut) and Durham (New Hampshire) have all hosted twice in the previous 17 seasons. Boston University’s Agganis Arena was also scheduled to host a second time in 2020. Ridder Arena in Minnesota has hosted the Frozen Four five times in the last 17 years, including three Frozen Fours in a six-year span between 2013-18 and four in nine seasons going back to 2010.
The NCAA has already named the next five Women’s Frozen Four hosts through the 2025-26 season with Duluth, Durham (2024) and Minneapolis (2025) all set to host again. In 2022, the Women’s Frozen Four will visit a new location when Penn State hosts in State College, Pennsylvania. Penn State will then host again four years later in 2026.
“Our tournament could actually be a boom for local economies,” Crowell said. “I don't know enough, but I would like to know more about that whole bidding process. How attractive is the NCAA making it to cities and locations to host it? I think that needs work, frankly, if we're only getting the same schools over and over. Let's take a look at it.”
While picking up new Frozen Four sites would be a great way to grow women’s college hockey and expose the sport to new markets, Crowell said expanding the tournament to 10 teams ultimately remains the No. 1 priority for her and the group she is working with.
They will sacrifice the single-site idea, and even bracket integrity, if they ultimately must, with bracket integrity being tough to achieve under the current financial constraints put in place by the NCAA.
“We’re all about expansion, and whether that’s a single site or multisite, we’re open to it.” Crowell said. “Our priority is expansion, our second priority is bracket integrity.”
This story and graphics were updated at 3 p.m. on May 26, 2021, following the announcement by Robert Morris it is ending its men's and women's hockey programs. It was originally posted at 1 a.m. on May 26, 2021.