Still waiting for a women’s Ice Breaker
The Mercyhurst Lakers, a program with established name recognition trying to replenish its competitiveness, starts its 2017-18 campaign in Wisconsin Sept. 28 and 29. The team that beat the Badgers for the 2017 national title, Clarkson, kicks off its defense against the time-honored Northeastern program that same opening weekend.
If only there were a way to go back in time and arrange to place those matchups in a single setting. With their respective standings in the history books, recent PairWise rankings or both, Clarkson, Mercyhurst, NU and Wisconsin would have made a top-notch foursome for the 2017 women’s college hockey Ice Breaker.
That is, if only such an event or an equivalent existed.
The men’s side has done this for two decades and counting. A select quartet representing four conferences convenes for a two-day bid for bragging rights as each team’s first two regular-season contests. The event typically takes place on a campus site or a neighboring pro venue, though Kansas City and St. Louis have hosted as well.
Three months ago, this site briefly listed an Ice Breaker-inspired tournament as one of five missing cogs that could give the women’s game an easy boost. To be fair, some items on the 2017-18 schedules released since that column have their own merit.
Of particular note, NU and crosstown Hockey East rival Boston University are going to Washington, D.C. for Thanksgiving weekend. They will join Wisconsin and its WCHA cohabitant, Minnesota State, and trade matchups over a two-day span.
The host venue, Arlington’s Kettler Capitals IcePlex, is thus building on a stride it took for the game this past season. It previously hosted a single series between Mercyhurst and St. Lawrence in early January.
The neutral-site showcase will even feature a local product in BU senior forward Anna Streifel. Granted, Streifel has seen limited action, but if she dresses, local spectators will see a Bowie, Md., and Washington Pride product living her Division I dream.
Midseason conventions of this nature, or that of the Vermont-hosted Windjammer Classic, are unquestionable pluses. But Division I women’s hockey, its four member conferences and all programs involved can do more for each other.
Campus site or neutral site, an event that emulates every key aspect of the college hockey Ice Breaker is the simplest next step. All it would take is an annual commitment from one select program in each league for the start of a given schedule.
The convention at Kettler will surely yield some compelling HEA-WCHA bouts when BU and NU take their turns with the Badgers. The Mavericks might even be a pleasant surprise in the face of higher-class competition. But this will do nothing for College Hockey America and the ECAC, both of whom lack representation.
Conversely, late September’s two separate campus-site series of Wisconsin-Mercyhurst and NU-Clarkson combine to involve every league. Moreover, those four programs have ample tradition to advertise. They have all produced at least one Patty Kazmaier Award winner in this decade and have been to one or both of the last two NCAA tournaments.
Imagine putting all four of them at Kettler or elsewhere at once. Now imagine, instead of predetermining the Day 2 field, letting Day 1 serve as a set of semifinals toward a third-place and championship card.
The resulting incentive to whet one’s appetite for more hardware down the road could only help the product live up to the hype. In turn, young prospective players in the stands would get an authentic feel for what they can strive for.
Throw in the souvenir programs detailing every institution’s amenities, and those aspirants would preserve their takeaways all the more. By featuring one university per league and covering every region on the sport’s map, a hopeful student-athlete’s self-set geographic barriers would go down before they could go up.
Reaching out to generally untapped markets, including the Beltway, in this fashion could enrich the soil for recruitment in the long run. It might also serve as an early test of fan interest for when the upstart NWHL is ready for more ambitious expansion.
But just like the Frozen Four and the men’s Ice Breaker, established markets should make up the majority of the rotation. Another way to woo recruits is by touting a program’s future commitments to visiting marquee facilities.
If the likes of the Minnesota Gophers hosted an early-season tournament under these proposed criteria, it would give more teams a chance to see Ridder Arena. The Gophers have partially done this before, having brought in BU, Penn State and St. Cloud State for the first weekend of 2014-15. The two non-WCHA visitors swapped a full-blooded road game with a neutral-site tilt against the Huskies, who already see Ridder in league play every year.
But that showcase lacked the tournament format and the full geographic diversity of the Ice Breaker. Substitute an ECAC ambassador for SCSU and follow the standard semifinals-third-place-championship pattern, and then Ridder would have had a full-fledged women’s Ice Breaker.
It is never too late to start pursuing that for the future. But every year that goes by without it packs a default loss by virtue of a lack of gain.