The Western Collegiate Hockey Association is based in the upper Midwest, with seven teams — five of which are in Minnesota, the other two of which are in Wisconsin and Ohio. With sixteen national championships headed into its twentieth year, as goes the WCHA, so (often) goes the nation.
Three WCHA programs lost starters to Olympic rosters last season. Most notably, Minnesota-Duluth goaltender Maddie Rooney backstopped the United States to its first gold in 20 years while her team went 15-16. Minnesota lived without Kelly Pannek and Sarah Potomak for the season but struggled in conference play. Wisconsin lost both Annie Pankowski and Emily Clark to Team USA and Hockey Canada respectively, though Pankowski was cut from Team USA prior to the Olympics.
Meanwhile, perennial middle-to-bottom-feeder Ohio State suddenly realized they had talent. Lead by future Buffalo Beaut Julianna Iafallo, they found their confidence and rocketed to a best-ever second-place conference finish, their first NCAA tournament and Frozen Four appearances, and a final rank of #4.
St. Cloud took the opportunity to debut some elite freshmen, as Emma Polusny and Janine Alder locked down the net. Bemidji State bounced (somewhat) back after a disappointing 2016-2017 season. Minnesota State struggled but managed to extract wins out of ranked teams.
Top Team Predictions
To nobody’s surprise, Wisconsin and Minnesota look to return as top teams this season. It’s not that they fell far last year— Wisconsin still took the conference and Minnesota came in third— but the fact that they weren’t 1 and 2 was surprising.
Wisconsin returns former UND player Kristen Campbell for her final year in net, and reloads their offense with two Olympic forwards. Abby Roque just might improve on her stellar sophomore 41-point season. They also add power freshman Sophie Shirley, more on her later.
Minnesota looks to continue its decade of dominance. Grace Zumwinkle might be the best sophomore in the country (sorry, Daryl Watts!), and now she’s playing with both Potomak sisters. Although the Golden Gophers lack the big names they’ve had in the past, they’re not lacking in talent.
Can we say Ohio State, again? Technically a horse can’t be dark if it’s expected, but the expectations changed as of July 5. That’s the day All-American goaltender Kassidy Sauvé announced she would play her final year of NCAA eligibility at Clarkson University. Yes, the same team that edged the Buckeyes out of the opportunity to play for a national championship only a few months before.
To Sauvé’s credit, she wants to play for Canada, and Clarkson’s last three tenders have been Shea Tiley (Toronto), Erica Howe (Markham), and Lauren Dahm (Worcester). Although Lauren Boyle and fellow All-American Jincy Dunne worked to keep the shots down, there’s no denying Sauvé was a huge reason why the team got as far as it did. If you haven’t watched her deny Caitrin Lonergan on the breakaway, take some time to do that now.
That being said, Emma Maltais and Tatum Skaggs might be the second coming of Natalie Spooner and Laura McIntosh, which should have every other team in the WCHA quaking as they’re only sophomores.
5 Players to watch
You should try and watch every player, but if you can’t, here are five to keep an eye on.
Sophie Shirley, freshman*, Wisconsin
Sophie Shirley had a unique opportunity last year. She was supposed to play for Wisconsin, but saw that her closest CWHL team, the Calgary Inferno, would be losing swathes of their roster to centralization. So she threaded the NCAA exemption loopholes and went pro, picking up the 2018 Rookie of the Year award along the way.
Shirley’s now in Madison, with a year of elite experience. Barring injury, I can’t see her putting up fewer than 30 points.
Amy Potomak, freshman*, Minnesota
The youngest Potomak was invited to Hockey Canada senior camp at only eighteen years old. Unfortunately, she was cut from the Olympic roster in November, then decided to sit out the rest of the season. This year, she’s ready to play from day one.
There are high expectations for Potomak as she finally pulls on that Minnesota sweater, but the young forward should be able to rise to meet them.
Maddie Rooney, redshirt junior, UMD
We’ve written a lot of words about the United States Secretary of Defense even outside of the Olympic season. Remember when she stopped 61 against Minnesota, then 51 more against Wisconsin the very next day? Or that behind-the-back save? She’s elite for a reason, and she should help UMD rebound this season after a disappointing showing last year.
Julia Tylke, senior, St. Cloud
I’ll let Tylke speak for herself:
Her dangles have helped her lead the team in scoring the last two years, and she’s never been outside the top two contributors. Don’t expect her to let go of that high-scoring mantle even as St. Cloud looks to stabilize this year.
Clair DeGeorge, sophomore, Bemidji State
The Alaskan forward was a bright spot on a lackluster Bemidji State last year. DeGeorge started her second season off on a high point with an invitation to the USA Hockey women’s national team evaluation camp, which took place last week.
Bemidji is returning all three of its top scorers from last year, so DeGeorge won’t be without support on the ice as they try and regain some footing in the conference.
5 Series to Watch
Minnesota Duluth vs. Boston College - Sept. 28 - 29
Maddie Rooney faces off against three of her former Olympic teammates in Duluth. Will Megan Keller pick her corners? Or will UMD silence its critics from last year?
Ohio State vs. Colgate - Oct. 5 - 6
It’s a Frozen Four showdown as Colgate comes to Lane Avenue to take on the Buckeyes early in the season. If the Buckeyes have their systems in place and are confident in (probable) new starter Amanda Zeglen, it should be the week’s best matchup.
Minnesota Cup - Jan. 5 - 6
A new addition, the Minnesota Cup pits Minnesota, UMD, St. Cloud, and Minnesota State against each other for the title of “Best in Minnesota”. No word on what they told Bemidji they were up to for the weekend.
Minnesota State vs. Minnesota Whitecaps - Feb. 2
The Whitecaps haven’t given up college exhibitions now that they’re part of the NWHL. Last year, Minnesota State got the win over a squad depleted by centralization. This year, the Whitecaps have Amanda Leveille, Kendall Coyne-Schofield, and, most importantly, game checks.
WCHA Final Faceoff - March 9 - 10
As I said earlier, as goes the WCHA, so goes the nation. The conference winner will be almost sure to go to the Frozen Four, if not the National Championship game.