This year, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) drops the puck on its 20 season. Over those two decades, the WCHA has consistently been the strongest conference in NCAA Division I women’s ice hockey. The Minnesota-based conference has produced 16 NCAA national champions and been home to 83 Olympians representing eight countries from eight different member schools.
Between the return of two 2018 gold medalists (four Olympians overall), a new conference-wide streaming deal, and the addition of the Minnesota Whitecaps to women’s professional hockey, the 2018-19 season could take the popularity and exposure of the most decorated women’s hockey conference to the next level.
It’s been almost exactly seven months since 21-year-old Maddie Rooney stopped the last puck of the 2018 Winter Olympic Tournament to win the United States its first gold medal in 20 years.
“Maddie is almost a different person than she was a year or two ago,” said Minnesota-Duluth head coach Maura Crowell on the WCHA conference call last week. Rooney improved her skill level, having worked so closely with USA Hockey veterans and WCHA alumna like Meghan Duggan, Hilary Knight, and gold medal-winning goal scorer Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson last year.
“She’s grown up a lot and I think that maturity and confidence that came from succeeding and winning that gold medal is palpable when she’s in the room,” added Crowell.
Brad Frost, head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers hopes forward Kelly Pannek will have a similar effect on her team. “She gained valuable experience with the Olympic team and we’re excited for her to bring that back to us,” said Frost on the WCHA media call last week.
He believes her accolades and leadership may extend beyond her team, “I’m hopeful that the U.S winning that gold is a little pick-me-up for people in the state of Minnesota and in the United States, in particular, in coming out and watching all of our WCHA teams play.”
3.7 million total viewers (2.9 million on the NBCSN telecast alone) watched Rooney and Pannek win gold by way of a six-round shootout. The gold medal game was the most-watched NBCSN program in history (since 2003). The WCHA hopes a timely multiyear streaming deal will draw in some fans this season.
If you stream it, they will watch
As women’s hockey fans know, finding games on television or even online can be difficult. This season, the WCHA is aiming to alleviate this problem for fans of all seven of their partner institutions.
In the 2018-19 season, FloSports TV will add WCHA women’s hockey to its streaming platform. All contests hosted by Bemidji State, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota State University, and St. Cloud State will be aired. Select games from the remaining three teams will also air, in partnership with the Big Ten Network.
“We will be the nation’s only women’s conference to offer fans a single destination to stream all of its teams from opening night through the Final Face-off,” said WCHA vice president and women’s commissioner Katie Million last week.
Fans can enjoy live games and select archived games spanning across preseason, non-conference games, the WCHA conference tournament and more. Fans who tuned in this weekend got a sneak peek at the Minnesota Whitecaps ahead of their first NWHL season. The service requires a subscription to watch.
WCHA alumna in the pros
The Whitecaps have been a home to Minnesota natives and/or WCHA alumna looking to remain in the game since their inception in 2004. The teams has been affiliated with the original National Women’s Hockey League (1999-2007) and the CWHL over the years, and even won the Clarkson Cup in 2010.
These days, WCHA talent can be found at rinks across the world, including the American-based NWHL founded in 2015. The reigning NWHL Goaltender of the Year Amanda Leveille helped the Buffalo Beauts to two-straight Isobel Cup Final appearances. This season, the former Gopher will return to Minnesota and play for the Whitecaps.
Last season, Leveille went head-to-head with the Metropolitan Riveters and 2017 Goaltender of the Year Katie Fitzgerald. The St. Cloud State alumna made 21 saves to preserve a 1-0 victory in the 2018 Isobel Cup Final. “Brick Wall Fitzy” was named the MVP of the championship game.
Fitzgerald’s path to the pros was a winding road, all the more reason her college coach sees her as an inspiration for current Huskies netminders. “Right now we have two young goaltenders ... for those two [Janine Alder & Emma Palusney] to be able to look into the future and see that there’s possibly more hockey coming down the road for them I think is very exciting,” said St. Cloud head coach Eric Rud on the media call last Tuesday.
He added, “Katie really did a nice job of leaving a legacy here of how to compete as a goaltender and our young players are following that lead. We’re very proud of Katie, she’s done a great job and we look forward to continuing to watch her continued success.”
The same can be said of the 33 WCHA aluma set to play in the NWHL alone in 2018-19. Still others like Sarah Nurse (Wisconsin; CWHL), and Natalie Spooner (Ohio State University; CWHL), Lara Stalder (Minnesota Duluth; SDHL), and Meaghan Mikkelson (Wisconsin; CWHL & SDHL) play abroad.
To the next 20 years
The road to the Winter Olympic Games often includes a stop in the WCHA and the state of hockey itself, Minnesota. This year, the hard work and talent of the WCHA student-athletes, coaches and staff will be on display for a wider women’s hockey audience.
Fans may tune in to FloSports just to see Maddie Rooney’s return to Minnesota-Duluth after winning Olympic gold. Or, maybe they’ll show up at TRIA Rink to catch a Whitecaps game and — with any luck — sit beside retired legend and new Minnesota women’s basketball head coach Lindsay Whalen.
Women’s hockey is growing. Over time, the WCHA and the state of Minnesota can act as a treasury; the preservation space of the past and present, and where the future of the game matures.