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NCAA officially approves women's hockey tournament expansion, 11-team format for 2021-22 season

The NCAA Division I Council approved a proposal Wednesday to expand the NCAA National Collegiate Women's Hockey Championship Tournament to 11 teams.

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Minnesota Duluth's Ashton Bell (26) celebrates with teammates after scoring the game-winning goal against Colgate during an NCAA National Collegiate Women's Ice Hockey Championship quarterfinal game on Monday, March 15, 2021 at Erie Insurance Arena in Erie, Pennsylvania. An eight-team tournament from 2005-2021, the tournament is expanding to 11 teams this season. (Clint Austin / File / caustin@duluthnews.com)
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It’s officially official.

The NCAA National Collegiate Women’s Hockey Championship tournament is expanding to 11 teams and it is happening right away this season after getting the thumbs-up Wednesday from one final level of the NCAA bureaucracy.

The NCAA Division I Council gave its stamp of approval Wednesday on a proposal that was submitted by the National Collegiate Women’s Ice Hockey Committee and recommended last month by the NCAA Division I Competition Oversight Committee.

It’s a process that began shortly after the 2020-21 season ended. It hit a road block just before the 2021-22 season got underway, and then was recharged in-season following a scathing report that detailed the gender inequities in college hockey .

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Under the approved format that was initially announced by the competition oversight committee on Nov. 24:

  • The top five seeds will receive first-round byes to the quarterfinals, with the top four seeds hosting first-round and quarterfinal games. The No. 5 seed will travel to one of the top four seeds.

  • Three of the top four seeds will host first-round games. There will be a day off in between the first round and quarterfinal rounds, so the first-round winners don’t play back-to-back games.

  • The four quarterfinal winners advance to the Frozen Four on March 18-20 at Penn State. That remains the same.

“The women's ice hockey committee thinks this format allows the tournament to stay on its current schedule,” the NCAA wrote in late November. “Committee members believe it is important to make sure there is a day of rest for teams after competing in the first round, then having to face a team that received a bye into the quarterfinals.”
UMD athletic director Josh Berlo is in his second season on the National Collegiate Women’s Ice Hockey Committee, which oversees the selection, seeding and bracketing of the national women’s hockey tournament.

Bulldogs coach Maura Crowell and associate head coach Laura Bellamy were part of the working group of coaches and administrators who helped craft the various bracket expansion proposals .

Crowell said in late November that the format for this season “is going to be as good as it can be” considering the 11-team format and timing. What’s being used this season may not be the format going forward.

“Our focus is on getting more teams in versus all of the nitty-gritty,” Crowell said of bracket expansion. “However we need to get there, where we need to play, who we need to play, how that works — we'll be ready.”

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An example

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Minnesota Duluth forward Clara Van Wieren (25) and Colgate forward Darcie Lappan (72) compete for the puck during an NCAA National Collegiate Women's Ice Hockey Championship quarterfinal game on Monday, March 15, 2021, at Erie Insurance Arena in Erie, Pennsylvania. Clint Austin / File / caustin@duluthnews.com

While the NCAA didn’t phrase it this way in its announcement, multiple sources and other reports have indicated that the No. 4 seed will host the No. 5 seed in the first quarterfinal, while the first through third seeds will host first-round matchups and then the winners in the quarterfinals.

Using the information currently available, and the latest Pairwise rankings on USCHO.com , here is what the 2022 NCAA National Collegiate Women’s Hockey Championship Tournament could look like.

Example 11-team NCAA Tournament

QUINNIPIAC REGIONAL

  • First round: 8. Harvard vs. 9. Clarkson
  • Quarterfinal: 1. Quinnipiac vs. Harvard-Clarkson winner

NORTHEASTERN REGIONAL

  • Quarterfinal: 4. Northeastern vs. 5. Minnesota

WISCONSIN REGIONAL

  • First round: 7. Colgate vs. 10. Minnesota Duluth
  • Quarterfinal: 2. Wisconsin vs. Colgate-Minnesota Duluth winner

OHIO STATE REGIONAL

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  • First round: 6. Yale vs. 11. Syracuse
  • Quarterfinal: 3. Ohio State vs. Yale-Syracuse winner

Note the following:

  • Whether it is men’s or women’s hockey, the Pairwise rankings are generally considered too inaccurate yet in December due to a lack of data. They can be taken more seriously after Jan. 1.

  • According to multiple sources and reports, the women’s hockey Pairwise is treating overtime wins as 67% of a win, with the loser receiving 33%, mirroring the two points a team receives in the conference standings for an OT win and one point for an OT loss. The men award just 55% of a win to the victors and 45% of a win to the loser.

  • This example bracket includes the top 10 from the Pairwise and the first-place team in College Hockey America, Syracuse. The New England Women’s Hockey Alliance is not eligible for an automatic bid until the 2022-23 season.

  • No guidelines pertaining to travel or intraconference matchups for an 11-team bracket have been released yet from the NCAA, so this bracket uses straight bracket integrity. In the past, the NCAA has asked the committee to limit flights, but not intraconference matchups. ( Update: The Wisconsin State Journal reports the selection committee will no longer have to prioritize travel costs and that the committee will try to avoid intraconference matchups in the first round.)

The timeline

After working all offseason on a proposal to expand the tournament , the women’s ice hockey committee submitted a 10-team proposal to the competition oversight committee that was reviewed in September. It was tabled due to a lack of funding, though the competition oversight committee said in its report that it supported expansion .

The push for immediate bracket expansion was reborn in late October when Phase II of the NCAA External Gender Equity Review Report was released, highlighting large disparities between the the NCAA Division I men’s and women’s hockey championships in spending, promotion, staffing and participation.

The gender equity report also included an anecdote revealing women's hockey could have asked to expand beyond just 10 teams, so it did when it resubmitted its proposal in early November, asking for 12. The COC settled on an 11-team bracket to put the women almost exactly in line with the men in terms of postseason participation at 26.8%.

While the odd number of teams confused and even angered some, those who worked to expand the women’s tournament celebrated the first expansion of the field since it went from four to eight teams in 2005.

“It’s an exciting day for women’s hockey and great news,” Bellamy said when the field expanded. “It’s definitely a time to celebrate. There’s been a lot of work put in by a lot of people. This needed to happen, so it’s pretty exciting that we are where we are.”

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This story was updated at 3:28 p.m. on Dec. 16, 2021, with a link to a Wisconsin State Journal story providing new information about the tournament format. It was originally posted at 5:35 p.m. on Dec. 15, 2021.

Co-host of the Bulldog Insider Podcast and college hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune and The Rink Live covering the Minnesota Duluth men's and women's hockey programs.
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