Frozen Eight? NCAA To Expand Women’s Hockey Tournament
As the sport grows in popularity, the Frozen Four has become far too small to represent the national women’s hockey scene.
“It’s been so close and so tight,” said Dartmouth head coach Mark Hudak. “I think it’s a great idea and probably overdue. It highlights the sport more, and it gives more teams a chance to be included in what I think is a great event.”
In the three seasons since the NCAA sanctioned the first women’s hockey championship in 2001, championship attendance has tripled, and the number of schools that support Division I women’s hockey programs has increased from 12 in 1996 to 30 schools in the 2003-2004 season.
The National Collegiate Women’s Ice Hockey Committee also cited an increased number of club teams to indicate high future growth expected by the sport.
“I’m psyched every time I hear there’s a new women’s team popping up, a new program, scholarships,” said Harvard co-captain Angela Ruggiero. “This is a reflection of women’s hockey today.”
With the increased number of women’s hockey teams, the tournament should become more competitive, with a less obvious eventual champion. By allowing more than just the top four teams, the championship will now have room for a dark horse or a team on the bubble in terms of being one of the current top four teams in the nation.
“There are definitely some teams that could have won it but weren’t in it,” said Harvard co-captain Lauren McAuliffe, in reference to last year’s Frozen Four in Duluth, Minnesota. “I don’t know if there were eight teams who could have won it.
“But there were definitely other teams who could’ve been there and could’ve done a good job.”
As more universities add varsity women’s hockey programs, the Ivy League, which has traditionally had a stranglehold on the sport, faces increased competition.
“Talking from an Ivy League school, when you see all the money that’s going into women’s hockey, and all the big universities starting to sponsor women’s hockey and all the scholarships, it’s going to become increasingly difficult for Ivy League schools,” said Harvard head coach Katey Stone.
Ivy League academic standards for athletes have also increased, limiting the pool of eligible recruits for schools like Harvard.
“It becomes more and more difficult every year to compete,” Stone continued. “So if you expand to eight, that’s going to help Ivy League teams stay on track.”
Under the new format, regional playoffs will be held the weekend prior to the Frozen Four. These games will be played on separate campuses, similar to other NCAA tournaments.
The expansion gives women’s hockey a much higher ratio between the number of teams in Division I and the number that will qualify for the eight-team field than other NCAA sports.
If women’s hockey were to stay with the Frozen Four, a mere 13 percent of its teams qualify for the playoffs.
With 30 teams in the league and eight going to the playoffs, approximately 27 percent of the league’s teams will make the playoffs starting next season.
Not all women’s sports have received the playoff expansion women’s hockey will have. Less than 16 percent of women’s Division I volleyball teams make the playoffs. Similarly, women’s basketball qualifies about 19 percent of its teams for the Division I playoffs, and women’s soccer awards playoff spots to about 21 percent of its teams.
Players, coaches and fans alike hope continued growth from women’s hockey in Division I will bring the percentage of teams who make the NCAA tournament back down to that of the other sports.
“There are more and more D-I teams every year, and the field keeps expanding, so it makes sense that the Frozen Four is going to expand,” said McAuliffe.