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WCHA Media Day: Coaches disappointed, not surprised NCAA tabled tournament expansion proposal

Women's hockey sought to expand the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005, going from eight to 10 teams starting in 2021-22.

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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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Minnesota Duluth coach Maura Crowell called the NCAA’s inaction last week on a proposal to expand the National Collegiate Women’s Hockey Championship Tournament from eight to 10 teams “very frustrating,” but said her and other women’s hockey coaches will continue to keep the topic alive.

“Our group probably worked harder on that proposal than most have had to work to get things passed by the oversight committee,” Crowell said Wednesday during a WCHA Media Day videoconference. “We know it's not the end of the road. 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.

“We're not going away.”

Crowell and UMD associate head coach Laura Bellamy are part of a working group of NCAA women’s coaches and administrators that submitted the bracket expansion proposal this summer. It was supported and advanced by the NCAA Women’s Ice Hockey Committee — which includes UMD athletic director Josh Berlo — but tabled by the NCAA Division I Competition Oversight Committee at its Sept. 8 video conference.

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In its report from the Sept. 8 videoconference , the committee wrote it was left with limited dollars for new initiatives and with the limited funding available, it decided to prioritize rest days for select championships such as gymnastics, softball, volleyball and men’s ice hockey — the later of which received a day off in between the regional semifinals and final.

“While the committee supports the merits of the proposal to expand to 10 teams, it agreed to table the matter until the next opportunity to fund it,” read the report .

Crowell’s colleagues at Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio State also expressed their disappointment Wednesday during media day in the decision by the oversight committee to table the proposal, but all of them said they were not surprised by the move.

And they’re all optimistic bracket expansion will happen in the future.

“I think it was a long shot to get expansion this year,” Gophers coach Brad Frost said. “So having it be tabled is not a ‘no,’ it's just a ‘not right now.’ So they'll circle back and look at that.

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“I'm pretty confident that it is going to happen.”

Badgers coach Mark Johnson and Buckeyes coach Nadine Muzerall both cited the timing as unripe for expansion — at least in 2021-22 — because of the uncertainty surrounding the automatic qualification status of the New England Women’s Hockey Alliance (NEWHA) and College Hockey America (CHA) for the NCAA tournament.

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NEWHA’s waiver request for its postseason champion to receive an auto bid starting in 2021-22 was not supported by the NCAA Women’s Ice Hockey Committee and denied by the oversight committee on Sept. 8 . Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the league has yet to play the minimum two seasons with six teams to receive an auto bid. An auto bid for NEWHA this year would have pushed women’s hockey over the NCAA’s 50-50 threshold of automatic bids versus at-large bids for a national tournament.

Meanwhile, the CHA is in danger of losing its auto bid after Robert Morris announced it was cutting its men’s and women’s hockey programs in May . Since then, an effort has been launched to reinstate the programs in time for the 2022-23 season . The league has until 2023-24 to get back to six teams, or risk losing its auto bid.

“As you dig deeper, there are just some things that are there that need to be clarified and cleared up before, probably in the back of their minds, they want to make a final decision,” Johnson said of the oversight committee.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the NEWHA and CHA, Johnson said women’s college hockey is in a position to expand the NCAA tournament bracket by two, if not four, teams. He said it is necessary to grow the game.

Johnson was coach of the Badgers when the tournament expanded from four to eight teams in 2005 after the Hockey East postseason champion began receiving an automatic berth. He said expansion helped grow the game and open the NCAA tournament to teams that never had a shot previously.

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“It excites their universities, it excites their fan bases,” Johnson said. “I think if we’re able to go to 10 or 12, it’ll continue the process of growing our game.”

Muzerall said the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing could also help give the sport the support it needs to expand the NCAA tournament.

“It’s a long time coming,” Muzerall said.

WCHA Media Day News and Notes

The WCHA will not reschedule games in 2021-22 that are impacted by COVID-19, commissioner Jennifer Flowers said Wednesday. If a game is not played because of COVID-19 reasons, it will be canceled and go down as a no contest.

Rescheduling games was much easier a year ago when the league had seven teams, Flowers said. The league is back to eight this year with the addition of St. Thomas.

“We just don’t have the same flexibility built in and we do have full schedules,” Flowers said.

Flowers said the league will try to make up games that can’t be played due to weather conditions or travel issues. If those can’t be played, they’ll also go down as a no contest.

  • Flowers said the league will follow the NCAA Sports Science Institute’s guidelines as it pertains to COVID-19 protocols this season. Fully vaccinated individuals are only required to be tested for COVID-19 if they are symptomatic or come in close contact with COVID-19. A fully vaccinated individual only needs to quarantine if they test positive. Non-vaccinated individuals have to be tested between 1-3 times per week, and go into quarantine if they come into close contact with COVID-19. Flowers said the league has “strongly encouraged” its programs to get 100% vaccinated.

“Overall, our vaccination rate as a league for student athletes, staff, personnel, etc., is very, very strong,” Flowers said. “We feel like we are in a really, really good place.”
The Bulldogs women’s hockey program, as well as the men’s program, are already 100% vaccinated.

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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