The New England Women’s Hockey Alliance (NEWHA) announced in a press release today that the NCAA has officially approved the league’s Division I membership, effective on August 1st, 2019 for this upcoming season. The NEWHA had previously announced its intent to form a Division I conference last September.
While the main focus of the news is that the NCAA has officially recognized the league and its Division I standing, the more important effect of the league’s recognition is that the clock starts this season on the two-year probationary period required for NCAA tournament autobid status. But the wording in the release was a bit unclear on the status of that autobid.
Starting with the 2021-22 season, active Division I membership allows the NEWHA champion to be eligible for a bid to the National Collegiate Women’s Ice Hockey (Division I) Championship.
The league is eligible for a bid to the NCAA Women’s Hockey NC (National Collegiate) Championship, but it does not say the league will be granted one. And in fact, sources have confirmed to The Ice Garden that the NCAA is unwilling to allow for more than 50% of the tournament field to be filled with conference champion automatic qualifiers. With the CHA, ECAC, Hockey East, and WCHA champions currently granted an automatic berth in the 8-team NCAA tournament, that makes the 4-out-of-8 autobid slots full. So as it stands right now, the New England Women’s Hockey Alliance is not set to be granted an NCAA tournament autobid when eligible, in the 2021-2022 season.
However, sources have also confirmed that the NCAA Women’s Hockey tournament committee is considering tournament expansion to accommodate for the additional automatic qualifier. An expansion to 10 teams seems to be on the table, however the most talked about possibility seems to be an expansion to 9 teams, with an 8 vs. 9 play-in game accommodating the new NEWHA berth. That would appear to make the most sense, given that the NCAA has been reluctant to expand the women’s hockey tournament much further than its current size given the limited number of schools sponsoring the sport, but also that they are looking to fit in a fifth automatic bid from a conference consisting of both D-I and D-II schools.
The New England Women’s Hockey Alliance consists of three Division I programs -- Long Island University, Saint Anselm College, and Sacred Heart University -- as well as Franklin Pierce University, Post University, and Saint Michael’s College from Division II. In addition to the schools forming an official conference, the programs have also begun regularly scheduling opponents from the other D-I conferences, with just about all of the programs set to play at least a couple teams from the CHA, Hockey East, ECAC, or WCHA conferences in this upcoming season.