The New England Women’s Hockey Alliance (NEWHA) announced on Wednesday its intent to form an NCAA-recognized conference and to compete against other NCAA Division I programs in a move that signals imminent growth for the sport of women’s hockey.
Comprised of two NCAA Division I institutions and four NCAA Division II institutions, founding members of the NEWHA include Franklin Pierce University, Post University (Conn.), Sacred Heart University, Saint Anselm College, and Saint Michael’s College. Long Island University Brooklyn is slated to join the league in 2019-20 as its sixth member.
The NEWHA formed as a matter of necessity for the 2017-2018 season as a scheduling alliance. After the D-II schools were no longer able to play as a part of the New England Hockey Conference (NEHC), which opted to exclusively play at a Division III level, the teams joined together at the 11th hour to schedule a season’s worth of games. That alliance triggered a bit of a constitutional crisis for the NCAA women’s hockey selection committee for the National Collegiate tournament, as a top-ranked NEWHA team could have technically played itself into NCAA tournament consideration due to playing the required 20 games against D-I/D-II competition.
But the NEWHA conference announcement has far greater and wider-reaching impact than last year’s scheduling agreement, both on an NCAA and an institutional level. Per the NEWHA press release:
NEWHA member institutions have unanimously agreed to adhere to NCAA Division I recruiting rules and will begin to offer athletic scholarship aid to recruits, effective with the 2019-20 academic year.
NEWHA member institutions have begun to schedule Division I opponents for 2019-20 and will continue to explore non-conference Division I scheduling opportunities moving forward.
These are two major announcements, significant to the point that the press release may have buried the lede a bit.
First and foremost, the NEWHA as a whole will introduce an influx of new scholarship opportunities for high school girls to continue their hockey careers at the collegiate level. Such a move is one of the most exciting developments for the growth of the sport in years, particularly after the jarring news of North Dakota cutting its program after the 2016-2017 season made it look like the sport could be entering a period of retraction.
Second, the announcement that the schools have unanimously agreed to adhere to NCAA Division I recruiting rules – reportedly one of the reasons other D-I institutions have resisted scheduling these teams in past years – means that the NEWHA is indeed making strides toward a full entry into the NCAA National Collegiate level, rather than just setting up a scheduling island amongst themselves. The news that these teams are already in the process of scheduling other D-I schools for non-conference games is intriguing.
Not explicitly mentioned but strongly implied in the press release is that as a conference with the requisite six-team membership, the NEWHA will be seeking an NCAA tournament autobid.
“The one common point of emphasis during all meetings and phone calls leading up to today’s formal NEWHA announcement was a commitment to enhancing the student-athlete experience for women’s ice hockey on our respective campuses,” said Daron Montgomery, Saint Anselm College Director of Athletics. “This includes our intent to create a path to postseason eligibility for current (and future) NEWHA members.”
Per NCAA guidelines, the women’s ice hockey National Collegiate Championship is a combined championship opportunity open to all Division I and Division II programs that sponsor the sport.
The conference would be eligible for an automatic bid into the NCAA National Collegiate tournament after a two year probationary period once LIU-Brooklyn joins in 2019-2020. That would put the NEWHA on track for an NCAA autobid in the 2021-2022 season. While nothing is even close to being in the works at the NCAA level to accommodate a potential additional automatic bid, sources close to The Ice Garden have noted that a possible expansion of the National Collegiate tournament to nine teams (from the current eight) with an 8/9 play in game have been discussed.
Furthermore, there is a clear theme throughout the press release that new D-I/D-II programs could be on the horizon. A handful of New England schools are rumored to be exploring new varsity programs, which would now have a good-fit conference to play in and a realistic path to postseason eligibility – something that could help push wavering school boards to the right side of the fence. Local smaller schools with men’s teams like Bentley or AIC, and particularly D-II institutions like Assumption, SNHU, or Stonehill, are prime examples of schools that would fit the mold as the type of program rumored to make the jump now that they’d have a place to play.
All in all, it is crystal clear that the additional scholarship opportunities, the potential additional NCAA tournament automatic bid, the potential expansion of the NCAA tournament to nine teams, and the rumored addition of even more teams at the NCAA D-I/D-II level all point to meaningful growth of the sport of women’s hockey in the immediate future. The state of women’s hockey at the collegiate level is strong and appears likely to be getting even stronger.