ST. PAUL — With a global pandemic raging, and colleges still unsure if they will be able to hold in-person classes or sporting events this coming school year, there has been a natural fear in the college hockey world that some NCAA Division I programs may fold or go on hiatus for a time.
Instead, as of Wednesday afternoon, the game has added two men’s programs and a women’s program. In the spring, Long Island University's quickly-growing men’s program came on-line. On Wednesday, July 15, the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota’s largest private college, will have Division I men’s and women’s hockey programs starting in 2021-22.
As part of the larger announcement that the NCAA is allowing the Tommies to jump directly from Division III to D-I in all sports, they have joined the Western Collegiate Hockey Association women’s league starting a year from now. They will join the Summit League for basketball and the Pioneer League for football.
“Today, as much as ever, I'm proud to be a Tommie as we look to our university’s future,” said UST’s athletic director, Dr. Phil Esten, in a statement released by the school. “I thank the leadership at the NCAA, the Summit League, Pioneer Football League, WCHA and all who have supported our efforts. This decision aligns with our university's bold vision to ever press forward.”
WCHA for women's team
The Tommies women’s hockey program is one of the nation’s best at the D-III level, having won nine Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference regular season or playoff titles in the last six seasons. They have gone nearly 20 seasons without a losing campaign.
The WCHA women’s league has had seven teams since North Dakota dropped its program at the end of the 2016-17 season. An eighth team will mean no more bye weeks for WCHA teams. In an interview with The Rink Live, commissioner Jennifer Flowers admitted that the WCHA voted to accept UST three months ago, and kept it under wraps, awaiting the NCAA approval of their move to D-I. On Wednesday the Tommies accepted the invite to become the second Twin Cities school in the league.
"This gets us to St. Paul and to a different type of market. St. Thomas and the University of Minnesota will be very different institutions and very different atmospheres. They both bring great things to our league, but in different ways," Flowers said. "I hope our coaches are just as excited as I am about the opportunity to expand our league. even though we're staying in Minnesota, we're opening the door to more opportunities in the Twin Cities area. That's very exciting for us."
The immediate reaction among those who will compete with the Tommies for recruits, and on the ice, was positive.
“We want successful teams in our league,” UMD women’s hockey coach Maura Crowell said. “I think their location is fabulous. Another Minnesota school is great for our league, good for our travel. It makes a lot of sense. Another great win for girls hockey in the state of Minnesota.”
The Tommies will be the sixth D-I hockey program in Minnesota, joining the UMD Bulldogs, Minnesota Gophers, St. Cloud State Huskies, Minnesota State University-Mankato Mavericks and Bemidji State Beavers. Is there enough talent in the State of Hockey to support another D-I women’s hockey program? Crowell “definitely” thinks so.
“It’s going to be more competitive for the Minnesota schools, but that’s a positive,” Crowell said. “More opportunities for girls hockey players not only in Minnesota, but all over the country. The WCHA is a fantastic league. I anticipate kids — I shouldn’t say just the country — from all of North America wanting to go there. That’s a great thing.”
The Tommies' location, in the heart of the Twin Cities, was mentioned by more than one person in women's college hockey.
“A lot of our current players are from the metro area, and certainly there’s relationships there and people have connections," said Bemidji State women's hockey coach Jim Scanlan. "There hasn’t been a Division I women’s team in St. Paul. This is a great opportunity for St. Thomas to really generate some interest in women’s hockey at the Division I level and grow their brand. I think for all of us it’ll be a fun trip to go to St. Paul to play.”
CCHA for the men?
On the men’s hockey side, this will most likely mean an eighth member in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, which will begin play in 2021-22. In a podcast with The Rink Live last month, CCHA commissioner Don Lucia made it known that there had been conversations with UST, and they would be welcome in the new conference.
“Logically it means that either the (National Collegiate Hockey Conference) or the CCHA would be the likely fit for them,” Lucia said on June 18 on The Rink Live podcast. “They’ll have to weigh their options and what’s best for St. Thomas. Obviously we would love to have them be a part of our league because of their location and footprint, their academics and the potential for them to have a very strong college hockey Division I program.”
Their current home arena, located at St. Thomas Academy in suburban Mendota Heights, Minn., has seating for roughly 800 and would seem to be appropriate for a women’s D-I program. Like their eventual conference home, the future home rink for the Tommies men is unknown at this time.
“We are actively engaged in assessing all options for men’s hockey and will share an update once we have secured a conference invitation,” was the answer provided in a “frequently asked questions” statement from the UST athletic department on Wednesday.
UST has scheduled a Thursday morning Zoom conference with school officials and the commissioners from their three announced conferences to answer more questions about the move and the timeline.
Matt Wellens of the Duluth News-Tribune and Austin Monteith of the Bemidji Pioneer contributed to this story.