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NCAA women's hockey tournament expanding to 11 teams

Expansion of the field from eight to 11 could happen as early as this season, in 2022-23 at the latest

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Minnesota Duluth players celebrate a second-period goal against Northeastern during an NCAA Women's National Collegiate Ice Hockey Championship semifinal game on Thursday, March 18, 2021, at Erie Insurance Arena in Erie, Pa. I proposal to expand the eight-team women's national tournament from eight to 10 teams was tabled this month by the NCAA. (Clint Austin / File / caustin@duluthnews.com)
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In the wake of a scathing report that detailed the gender inequities in college hockey , the NCAA Division I Competition Oversight Committee approved the expansion of the National Collegiate Women's Ice Hockey Championship tournament from eight to 11 teams on Wednesday, though it remains undecided as to when expansion will happen.

The NCAA women’s hockey tournament last expanded from four to eight teams in 2005. The jump from eight to 11 teams could happen as early as this season, or as late as next season. The timetable — as well as the logistics of an awkward 11-team bracket — will be left up to the five person NCAA Division I Women’s Ice Hockey Committee. That group, which includes Minnesota Duluth athletic director Josh Berlo, is scheduled to meet next week.

The final format must be approved by the Competition Oversight Committee and NCAA Division I Council before it can go into effect.

“It’s an exciting day for women’s hockey and great news,” Bulldogs associate head coach Laura Bellamy said. “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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The timeline

Shortly after the 2020-21 season ended with the Frozen Four in Erie, Pennsylvania, a working group in women’s college hockey — that included Bellamy and Bulldogs head coach Maura Crowell — began working on a proposal to expand the NCAA women’s hockey tournament from eight to 10 teams, and address other inequities in the sport.

That proposal was submitted to the Women’s Ice Hockey Committee, which then brought it before Competition Oversight Committee in September. The proposal by women’s hockey was tabled , meanwhile, a proposal by men’s hockey to add a day off in between its regional semifinals and finals was approved.

In its report , the COC cited a lack of funding as to why it tabled the women’s hockey proposal, even though the committee, “supports the merits of the proposal to expand to 10 teams.”

During WCHA Media Day a week later, Crowell voiced her frustration with the tabling of the expansion proposal, but vowed, “We’re not going away.”

“We know it's not the end of the road,” Crowell said in September. “It's disappointing and really frustrating — from my standpoint — for all the time that a lot of coaches and administrators put into this effort. I think we have a lot of merit behind what we're asking for and our sport deserves it.”

On Oct. 25, women’s college hockey received further ammunition in its push for bracket expansion 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: $4.2 million on the men’s tournament compared to $656,827 on the women. Broken down per student-athlete, that’s $9,805 vs. $3,421.

  • Promotion: $193,000 is spent a year on promotional expenses for the men’s tournament compared to just $11,000 for the women.

  • Staffing: The men’s tournament has 11 NCAA employees working its tournament. The women have two.

  • Participation: While 16 out of 60 men’s hockey teams (26.7%) make the national tournament, only eight of 41 women’s teams (19.5%) do.

The gender equity report also included an anecdote revealing women's hockey could have asked for more than two teams, so it did, asking for 12 with the proposal that was resubmitted by the Women’s Ice Hockey Committee on Wednesday .

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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%.

"Currently, 41 schools sponsor national collegiate women's ice hockey," the NCAA wrote in its release . "With 11 teams in the bracket, 27% of the teams will have access to the championship bracket. Division I men's ice hockey is sponsored by 60 schools, with a 16-team field (27%) getting to play for a national championship."

What’s next?

Last Thursday, in anticipation of this week’s COC meeting, the women’s college hockey community launched a coordinated social media campaign that highlighted the gaps between men’s and women’s hockey. The campaign also pushed for bracket expansion, and for it to happen right away in 2021-22.

Bellamy said the women’s college hockey community will continue to push for bracket expansion now.

“For the expansion committee, our No. 1 goal has always been expansion,” Bellamy said. “We feel like we're almost there. But the secondary piece, ever since the Kaplan (gender equity) report, has been to have it happen now. So to the extent that we are able and in touch with our championship committee, we're really going to push for 2022. That'll be our main focus. We feel we can get that done.”

This story was updated at 8:26 p.m. Nov. 10, 2021, with additional details and comments from Bulldogs associated head coach Laura Bellamy. It was originally posted at 6:07 p.m. Nov. 10, 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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