Women’s WCHA should give Lindenwood a fair, long look
There is no cause to assume Minnesota-Duluth head coach Maura Crowell was dismissing the Lindenwood Lions when she spoke with the Duluth News Tribune’s Matt Wellens last month about expanding the women’s WCHA. But her remarks leave less reason to believe she would give the Saint Charles, Mo.-based program an easy endorsement.
Since the University of North Dakota’s administration pulled an Anita McCambridge on its women’s hockey program — a move that renewed its sting with last week’s release of the league’s 2017-18 schedule — speculation as to the prospects of a new eighth member inevitably proliferated.
When quoted by Wellens on the matter, Crowell made her priority point-blank. “What’s important to me and other coaches is making sure if we do expand, we get the right type of program because we are the premier league in the country and we want to stay that way.”
On the surface, those standards bode grimly for Lindenwood, the only non-WCHA program in the Central Time Zone. Wellens himself wrote that “Financially, the Lions would be a good fit, but not competitively. In its short six-year history, Lindenwood is 45-143-14 and has reached the 10-win mark just once.”
But consider the finer variables, particularly Lindenwood’s geographic isolation from its five College Hockey America cohabitants. Then remember that amidst the program’s perpetual growing pains, it has produced U.S. Olympic goaltending candidate Nicole Hensley.
North Dakota leaves the women’s hockey landscape after finishing third or fourth in the Cyclopean circuit for seven consecutive seasons. That dates back to the year before Lindenwood joined the varsity ranks. The Fighting Hawks were a constant runaway for a position in the top half of the women’s WCHA standings. Nationally, they finished their final year at No. 14 in the PairWise rankings.
Quality-wise, filling the UND void with Lindenwood in its current state would be subtraction by addition for the league. At least at first. Crowell’s concerns are understandable on that basis, and with the possible exception of Robert Morris, they would apply to any existing candidate at this time.
To that point, Wellens went on to note that the three Pennsylvania-based programs are the other logical options. But naturally, any of those institutions would create a slew of two-way travel burdens, with the exception of Ohio State.
OSU, the only women’s WCHA tenant based east of Lake Michigan, is all but a better fit for Lindenwood’s league, geographically speaking. In addition, if they could jump ship, the Buckeyes would raise the CHA’s profile by playing under the same banner as Big Ten rival Penn State and the ACC’s Syracuse.
Realistically speaking, the women’s WCHA would exercise all of its power to prevent such a move if it ever needed to. It would not settle for a swap of the Buckeyes and Lions, even if that meant spreading the wealth of marquee names and growing the game beyond the one hegemonic Division I conference.
But the point about growing the game in the long run still applies to the case for a simple Lindenwood conference transfer. Having the one program from the “non-traditional” Missouri market trade visits with Minnesota and Wisconsin every year would make for better exposure in every sense of the word. And it would lighten a little of the travel burden from the status quo.
Any given query on Google Maps will tell you that the Lions require roughly three fewer hours than the Buckeyes to bus from their respective arenas to any of the five Minnesota destinations. In the air, the journey is generally one hour less out of Saint Charles than it is from Columbus. On the ground, a vehicle leaving Lindenwood can get to LaBahn Arena in Wisconsin an hour sooner than one from OSU.
The flight estimates from either city to any of College Hockey America’s Mid-Atlantic locations are more negligible. But the busing discrepancies are substantial, with estimates ranging between five and seven hours longer for Lindenwood.
Those differences also apply to traveling league officials, a matter commissioner Katie Million alluded to in the aforementioned Wellens write-up. Let them accumulate over a hypothetical conference season schedule, and the strain on the pedals and the pockets changes accordingly. The easier travel could also make the Lions more attractive to potential recruits, as would the established case of Hensley.
Hensley’s data did not dazzle until her senior season in 2015-16, when she retained a .922 save percentage and 2.52 goals-against average. But her performance in intercollegiate and international action pulled eyes away from the stat sheet and toward the living, breathing crease custodian.
And while the class of the women’s WCHA is several rungs above the CHA, the initial rigor could still sell the program to high-end recruits. More aspiring Gophers, Badgers and Bulldogs who lose those footraces could opt for an upstart conference rival where they are assured a bigger role earlier on, and with it a chance to grow through the finest trial and error.
Programs that lack powerhouse privilege, particularly Bemidji State and Ohio State, have those Ferris wheels that alternate them through up and down eras. When battle-tested classes blossom and take them to the former, the league’s profile is better for it.
If given the chance to be the WCHA’s new eighth tenant, Lindenwood can be like that. And it would sure beat waiting for CHA tenants to start looking more poachable, or for locations like Colorado and Michigan to finally join the women’s game.