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North Dakota's decision to drop women's hockey a major blow to the sport

By David La Vaque, Star Tribune, 05/01/17, 10:11PM CDT


The demise of UND women's hockey sent shock waves around the region.

Taylor Wemple, Hill-Murray girls' hockey, Dodge County girls vs. Hill-Murray girls 1/28/17 Photos by Korey McDermott

North Dakota’s decision to drop its women’s hockey program rocked the sport’s leadership and had coaches of Minnesota-based colleges and top local recruits questioning the thickness of the ice beneath their own skates.

“North Dakota is a warning shot across the bow for women’s hockey,” said Brad Frost, coach of the Gophers women’s hockey program. “Hockey is king up there so to see it get cut is an eye-opener. We need to be adding teams, not taking them away.”

The Fighting Hawks were one of 35 Division I women’s college hockey programs, and their loss is most acutely felt among the seven remaining Western Collegiate Hockey Association programs. Five of those teams are located in Minnesota.

“Hockey is a big part of the region we live in,” Bemidji State coach Jim Scanlan said. “To have 25 fewer opportunities for women to play college hockey is a huge blow.”

Minnesota high school hockey is a recruiting hotbed for the women’s college game. High school standouts represent all but 10 of the 97 in-state players who have committed to Division I schools for the 2017-18 season and beyond.

“This decision affects hockey throughout the Upper Midwest,” said Tim Morris, executive director of the Minnesota Girls’ Hockey Coaches Association. “North Dakota’s rosters over the years have been loaded with Minnesota kids. There are only so many places available in the Midwest to play.”

Ending women’s hockey at North Dakota after 13 seasons left three Minnesota high school players scrambling to find one of those places.

Hill-Murray senior defenseman Taylor Wemple had signed last fall to play for the Fighting Hawks and worried whether a good option remained. She found it in St. Cloud State, her second choice all along.

Still, Wemple considers what happened to UND “a huge loss. I dreamed of playing college hockey since I was a little girl. I didn’t think it could be taken away that easy. I hope it doesn’t send a message that this is OK.”

At Centennial, junior forward Gabbie Hughes had verbally committed to North Dakota. She has since changed her verbal commitment to Minnesota Duluth, where she will join Cougars linemate Anneke Linser.

Moorhead senior defenseman Kara Werth, who signed with UND, has since made a verbal commitment to Bemidji State.

Both Wemple and Hughes said they asked their new schools about their commitment to women’s hockey.

At Minnesota Duluth, “They said they didn’t expect it happening to them,” Hughes said of the five-time NCAA champions. “They said the program is improving and the school is solid financially.”

‘Fragile sport’ needs support

Coaches pondered related questions at last week’s annual WCHA meetings in Florida. Losing North Dakota means new logistical challenges such as more nonconference games and adjusted 2017-18 budgets. Asked about her sport’s health, Katie Million, WCHA vice president and women’s league commissioner, didn’t hold back.

“It’s a fragile sport and we need support,” said Million, who recently launched a campaign to solicit sponsorships and charitable donations for the league at rallyme.com.

Currently, 82 percent of the WCHA women’s league annual $700,000 operating budget is directly paid by the schools.

The NCAA began sponsoring the women’s hockey national championship in 2001. But not until recently did the sport gain ground in visibility and stature. When Clarkson defeated Wisconsin on March 19, it was the first national championship game aired live on television.

On March 28, women’s hockey players negotiated a deal with USA Hockey to receive higher wages and better travel accommodations.

One day later, however, came North Dakota’s announcement.

“It was like two steps forward and then four steps back,” Million said.

Dropping women’s hockey — along with men’s and women’s swimming and diving — saves the UND athletics department about $2.9 million. Baseball was cut in 2016, and the men’s golf program must raise $4 million by summer 2018 to avoid the same fate.

University President Mark Kennedy has said $60 million is needed to endow the women’s hockey program, a figure supporters have said they cannot reach.

‘This can’t happen again’

Like players who searched for a new hockey program, Frost said he wondered where the Gophers stood. Despite a record six NCAA championships, women’s hockey operates at a loss. In 2002, the school’s men’s gymnastics and men’s and women’s golf programs were targeted for elimination before supporters raised $2.7 million.

“[Athletic director] Mark Coyle came to my office for a chat and said, ‘I know it’s a scary thing to think about, but your program is on solid footing,’ ” Frost said.

Scanlan and St. Cloud State coach Eric Rud said nationwide concern exists for the welfare of college nonrevenue sports. Specific to women’s hockey, Scanlan said: “We all operate in the red. We’re trying to do everything we can to keep costs down as a program but at the same time, we want to grow the game.”

Former Eden Prairie player Charly Dahlquist did her part to advance the sport in North Dakota. Dahlquist, who as a senior made the 2015 Star Tribune All-Metro first team, recently completed her second and final season with the Fighting Hawks.

She considered transferring to Colgate or Minnesota State Mankato before ultimately deciding on Ohio State, where she will reunite with Lauren Boyle, a former high school teammate. Dahlquist said she asked each school the same question, “Do you see your program staying around or getting cut?”

Dahlquist is one of several college hockey players further enlightened by the sport’s challenges. She said she has become more aware of her role as ambassador and advocate.

“They see North Dakota, a big-time hockey school, on the chopping block — who’s to say someone else can’t do it?” she said. “This can’t happen again. We would skate with the young girls in North Dakota and sign autographs. They would say, ‘We want to be like you.’ Now they can’t, and that’s hard to see.”

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