Stonehill College of Easton, Mass., announced on Monday their intent to start a varsity women’s hockey program, joining the New England Women’s Hockey Conference (NEWHA) as an NCAA Division II program starting in the 2021-2022 season. Stonehill’s president Fr. John Denning, CSC, Athletic Director Dean O’Keefe, Vice President for Student Affairs Pauline Dobrowski, and NEWHA commissioner Robert M. DeGregorio, Jr. made the announcement on the school’s campus on Monday afternoon.
The Skyhawks currently have a club women’s hockey team, which will help the transition to varsit, and as the school already has a D-II men’s hockey program, there’s already a hockey culture on campus. The women’s team will play and train at Bridgewater Ice Arena in Bridgewater, Mass., a short ride from campus, per the press release.
Stonehill’s newest program will immediately join the NEWHA, the combined D-I/D-II women’s hockey conference starting its first year as an NCAA conference in the 2019-2020 season. They will be the conference’s first team in Massachusetts, joining teams from Vermont, Connecticut, New York, and New Hampshire. The NEWHA will be eligible for an NCAA tournament bid starting in 2022.
In a conversation with The Ice Garden, Stonehill College Director of Athletics Dean O’Keefe noted that “Women’s hockey has long been part of the school’s 5-10 year plan to add compelling new academic and athletic programs to attract students.” Indeed, the school has several new athletics programs in the last few years, with Women’s Golf starting up in 2016 and Women’s Swimming beginning competition in the 2020-2021 season. Women’s hockey, however, “was at the top of the list of potential new programs, either men’s or women’s.”
The formation of the NEWHA conference was the main driver in deciding to start a varsity women’s hockey program. “We’ve always thought that women’s hockey made a lot of sense at Stonehill, with a club team, plenty of local youth teams, and a great Boston hockey culture. We’ve had every element there but no viable conference home.” Trying to put together a schedule as an independent team wasn’t feasible, O’Keefe said, but having a new conference home with peer institutions made for “the perfect opportunity” to finally make it happen.
But the school isn’t starting hockey just to add another athletics program. They are here to be successful. While the exact number of scholarships that will be available is still up in the air, he noted that the school would be doing what’s necessary to be competitive. “And not just in the NEWHA, but also in the eyes of the D-I programs in the area, that we are worthy of being put on the schedule.” O’Keefe emphasized that playing national, D-I programs as a D-II school – something that is possible in women’s hockey with its unusual combined D-I/D-II schedule – presented a unique opportunity to generate excitement on campus.
The team will join the men’s program in playing its games off campus, but O’Keefe said that an on-campus arena was on the radar. “There’s always discussion to build a rink,” he explained. “It’s been a chicken-or-the-egg situation – do you elevate the women’s hockey program to varsity first and then look into an on-campus facility? Or do you start with the on-campus facility and then look into adding varsity women’s hockey?” With the formation of the NEWHA presenting a golden opportunity to move forward with the former, “that’s only going to create more discussion for a home on campus.”
Interestingly, and undoubtedly to the school’s benefit, O’Keefe has the unique distinction of being one of the few Athletics Directors in the country to have been involved with the formation of a varsity women’s hockey program from scratch before. Prior to taking over with the Skyhawks in 2015, Dean O’Keefe spent seven years within the senior leadership of the Merrimack College athletic department. The Warriors started a Division I women’s hockey program in 2015, so O’Keefe knows a lot of what goes into starting a program, joking that he “will break out some notes” in the coming months.
“We want to do it right, not quickly,” O’Keefe said regarding the team’s 2021-2022 inaugural season being a couple years out. The school is hoping to have a head coach hired for this year’s spring academic semester, as he acknowledged that the team’s new coach could conceivably be coaching in the college ranks already and would need to wait until the end of the current season. That would still leave the new coach enough time to settle in and build the program over the course of a full academic year before the team starts play in its first season.
Stonehill’s addition of women’s hockey continues an encouraging trend for the future of the sport, which has only grown since the surprise folding of the University of North Dakota program after the 2016-2017 season. A handful of new women’s hockey programs have popped up nationally since, giving more opportunities for girls to play at a higher level and further growing the game.