D-I hockey restoring rewards of special membership
An oft-quoted cliché reads “everyone loves an underdog.” Who could have predicted that the Nashville Predators would reach the Stanley Cup Final last season?
Hockey is rife with unique intrigue because the favorite does not necessarily win all the time. In the NCAA, the compelling underdog story becomes even more apparent when Division I hockey thrives at non-Division I institutions.
This phenomenon is the case for 20 of the 60 Division I men’s programs and 11 of the 35 Division I women’s programs. And more of those places are not only appearing on the big stages of the Frozen Four, but also establishing themselves as sustained contenders and destinations for top recruits.
It is clear that hockey talent is starting to spread out as North Americans and Europeans view the NCAA as one of the best paths to the professional leagues. This diversification of talent has been a boon to schools where hockey reigns supreme as the only Division I sport.
Of particular note, this holds true at Rochester Institute of Technology, Clarkson, Union, Merrimack, Colorado College, Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud State, Bemidji State, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State and Northern Michigan.
Most of these schools have enjoyed success at one point or another in their history. Out of the 20 men’s programs that fit in this category, only American International and Bentley have not made an NCAA tournament appearance. In fact, in the last five years, 34 Division I hockey teams out of a possible 60 have played in the postseason.
For the women, only Bemidji State, Lindenwood and Merrimack have not reached the national tournament. Two of those, Lindenwood (2011) and Merrimack (2013), have only recently joined the varsity ranks.
These darkhorse contenders’ success goes beyond simply making an NCAA tournament appearance. In the past 10 years, eight of these non-Division I programs have reached the men’s Frozen Four. Two, Minnesota-Duluth in 2011 and Union in 2014, have won the championship. This past season’s final between Denver and Duluth was the fourth out of the last seven to feature a team that only has hockey at the highest collegiate level.
UMD represents an interesting case in this discussion based on location. Along with Bemidji State, Minnesota State and St. Cloud State, it gives the iconic Golden Gophers intrastate company that would not be possible had its hockey programs not strayed from lower divisions.
The fact that these schools have found success on Division I ice only strengthens Minnesota’s claim as the “State of Hockey.” The most recent stats suggest that Minnesota maintains a strong habit of producing quality Division I talent with 201 men and 145 women playing at that level this past year.
And because hockey deviates the norm of college athletic tiers, more of that homegrown talent can stay close to home. The result is a self-perpetuating cycle that has seen the UMD, SCSU, BSU and MSU men all either reach a Frozen Four or enter an NCAA tournament as the top overall seed at least once apiece in the last decade.
Before this wave of college hockey parity on the men’s side, one would have to return to the mid-’90s and other earlier eras when schools like Colorado College, Lake Superior State and Michigan Tech were regular contenders for championship glory.
The parity is even more apparent among women’s programs. In the same 10 years, 11 of the Division I exceptions have reached the Frozen Four. Clarkson has won two of the last four titles while Duluth won in 2010.
While big-name schools may draw the most interest from neutral fans once the NCAA tournament begins, there are far more reasons to think that this development is a benefit for the sport nationally.
First, diversifying talent among even the smallest schools has allowed players to grow into better performers as more leadership and game responsibilities are levied on their shoulders.
In an April report for Sports Illustrated, Nicole Haase assessed the growth of the women’s game among all schools and the resultant impact at the international level. She wrote, “NCAA Division I hockey has emerged as the preeminent place for players to face premier competition, receive top-tier coaching and prepare for the level of international play, all while receiving an education.”
Second, schools like the ones listed above compete well with the larger state colleges when it comes to measuring how many people attend their games.
Last year’s attendance statistics for men’s games includes nine of the aforementioned schools ranking in the top 30, with Colorado College and UMD ranking fourth and sixth, respectively. Even though their school may not have the big name of a North Dakota, Boston University or Minnesota, the smallest schools benefit from having Division I hockey as its premier sporting event highlighting the weekend.
Finally, with competitiveness ranging from the top of the league to the bottom, both players and fans benefit from being a part of or witnessing the unexpected.
“That’s not going to happen in college football,” Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore told the New York Times about the upsets that happen weekly in college hockey. “The No. 100 team isn’t going to beat Alabama or Ohio State.”
Yes, the two prior men’s winners from Denver or North Dakota may have been an expected outcome, but college hockey has just as much potential for the Clarkson women to win as for a marquee, big-name school to capture the coveted honor as nation’s best.
This drama can only be a benefit to college hockey, its fans and its aspiring youth players. Foreseeable results may excite big-market fans of Golden State or Cleveland in the NBA. But part of college hockey’s charm is the unpredictable underdog that can topple a powerhouse on any given weekend, and in the championship game.