A History of Women's Hockey and the NCHA

A History of Women's Hockey and the NCHA

Now in its fourth decade of existence, the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association continues to provide opportunities for hundreds of student-athletes to compete in a nationally renowned NCAA Division III setting that is unparrelled in collegiate hockey on an annual basis.  The experience and the memories that come with it - both on and off the ice - are a treasure for the student-athletes, coaches, families and friends who are fortunate enough to be part of the NCHA Men's and Women's Conferences that span from Minnesota and Wisconsin through Illinois and Michigan.

The NCHA has focused on the growth and development of college hockey since its establishment in 1980.  Some historical moments include the first formal season of balanced competition in 1981-82, 11 Men's national championships (including six titles in seven years from 1987 through 1994), the addition of the Women's Conference in 2000 and the first Women's team to be granted a bid to the NCAA tournament in 2003.  Bemidji State's Joel Otto, who played for the Beavers from 1981-85 and won a NCAA national championship, was a member of the 1989 Stanley Cup Champion Calgary Flames.

On June 1, 1980, the administrators of six charter members formally approved the creation of the NCHA.  The original six were Bemidji State University, Mankato State University, St. Cloud State University, UW-Eau Claire, UW-River Falls and UW-Superior.  Those schools came from the International College Hockey Association and the Western Intercollegiate Hockey Association, both of which are no longer in existence.  League play began on an unofficial basis during the 1980-81 campaign with the teams playing an unbalanced schedule. The 1981-82 season marked the first formal schedule of NCHA play and is recognized as the first official season.

The structure and history of the NCHA Men's Division certainly provided a spring board for the creation of the Women's Division in 2000.  As girls' high school hockey was gaining in popularity in the Upper Midwest in the 1990s, particularly in Minnesota, and several colleges began sponsoring club and varsity teams, NCHA athletic directors began informal discussions in the later part of the decade about the idea of a women's league.  In January of 2000, they set their sights on the 2000-01 season.

"We had to decide what we were going to do," said Lake Forest Athletic Director Jackie Slaats, who became a crucial organizer and leader in the formation.  "We knew it was something we wanted, but there wasn't a protocol for how to make it happen."

Without a "How To" guide, the ADs held a special meeting on April 8, 2000 at the Arrowhead Lodge in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, the location of the NCHA annual spring meeting.  After three hours of hammering out details, it was decided that Lake Forest, UW-Eau Claire, UW-River Falls, UW-Stevens Point and  UW-Superior would be the five charter members of the league.  The following day at the official spring meeting, which was led by then-NCHA President and Athletics Director at UW-Stevens Point Frank O'Brien, the plan was ratified and the league was born.

O'Brien, for whom the Women's playoff trophy would later be named, provided support and guidance from his influential position at a pivotal time.  To have had a President who was not fully committed to the idea of a women's league could have meant disaster.  He remembers the excitement of being a part of such a historic movement and meeting the challenges of being new.

"I think the group as a whole (athletics directors) was the most important factor for the formation of the league," said O'Brien.  "We had to come together to get it done.  And that meant the men's teams as well.  They had to be on board in order to make the women's league happen."

With girls' hockey being such an up-and-coming sport, the founding of the NCHA Women's Division wasn't a gamble.  But the founders still had to have a vision for the future: Three ... Five ... Ten years down the road.  How fast might the sport grow and how would that affect the NCHA?  

"We all knew the sport would grow, and we knew there would be expansion," said O'Brien.  "But how much and by how many teams?  No one knew that."

Did he ever imagine the league would expand to eleven teams, which it did starting in the fall for the 2010-11 season with the additions of St. Norbert and St. Scholastica?

"No.  No one thought it would ever grow this big, but that's evidence the sport is still growing."

The NCHA Women's Conference gives opportunities to more than 200 student-athletes on its 11 teams in four states.  While the majority of roster spots were filled by Minnesotans in the first years of existence, there's much more diversity now in terms of where athletes come from.  States like Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan are contributing significant numbers now, and a significant number of student-athletes come from outside the United States.  Many proud Canadians play important roles now, as do players from Switzerland, Norway and Sweden, to name a few.

The fact the league is still growing highlights one of the many changes the NCHA has gone through over the past decade.  The level of talent has gone through a drastic makeover since 2000.

"Maybe one or two players from my first team could play on my team now," said UW-River Falls head coach Joe Cranston, who has coached at the western Wisconsin school since its inception.  "And those would have been All-American-type players at the time." 

The number of collegiate hockey candidates has increased exponentially.  Think the size of one players' bench versus the size of the entire ice sheet.

The NCHA Women's Conference has grown over the past decade at a faster pace and to a greater number of programs than its founders ever imagined.  Finlandia University joined for the 2003-04 season and Concordia University Wisconsin did so in 2007-08.  More recent expansion included Adrian College and Marian University in the 2009-10 season as well as St. Norbert and St. Scholastica in 2010-11.

Besides a history of excellent league competition, the NCHA has built a history of success on the national scene.  The Women's Conference is no stranger to NCAA tournament success.  The 2002-03 UW-River Falls Falcons were the first-ever NCHA team to earn a bid to the tournament.  UW-Stevens Point qualified the following year, losing a heartbreaker 2-1 to Middlebury in the championship game.  Of the ten years an NCHA team has been in the NCAA tournament, a team has reached the Semifinals five times.  The 2010-11 season marked the first time the Women's Conference had sent more than one team to the NCAA tournament, with Adrian earning the NCHA's automatic berth and UW-River Falls earning an at-large berth.

The NCHA Women's Conference originally played a four team playoff championship, held at the site of the highest seeded team. In 2007-08 the league had six teams qualify for the playoffs, with all games being played over three days at the high seed. Since the 2009-10 season, eight teams now qualify for the playoffs. The quarterfinal round features a 2+mini game format, while the semifinals and finals are single-elimination games played at the site of the highest remaining seed.  The championship game has been decided by one goal seven times through the first 11 finals.

The school with the most wins in those championship games is UW-Stevens Point.  The Pointers have won five playoff titles and are the only NCHA team to ever reach the NCAA championship game.  UW-River Falls has taken home the O'Brien Cup four times, including back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010.  Adrian became the first program outside of UW-Stevens Point, UW-River Falls and UW-Superior to win a playoff championship when it did so in 2011 with a 4-3 overtime victory.

NCHA Women's Champions

Year           Regular Season       Playoff Champion NCAA Tournament Teams Player of the Year
2012-13 UW-River Falls
St. Norbert
St. Norbert (A bid, First Round)
UW-River Falls (C bid, First Round)
Brittany Zeches, Sr, G, Adrian
2011-12 UW-River Falls  UW-River Falls
 UW-River Falls (A bid, First Round)
 Dani Schultz, Fr, F, UW-Superior
2010-11 UW-River Falls Adrian

Adrian (A bid, First Round)
UW-River Falls (C bid, First Round)

Kristin Faber, Sr, F, UW-Eau Claire
2009-10 Lake Forest UW-River Falls UW-River Falls (A bid, First Round) Kim Herring, So, F, Lake Forest
2008-09 UW-River Falls UW-River Falls UW-River Falls (A bid, 4th place) Nicole Grossmann, Sr, F, UW-Stevens Point
2007-08 UW-Superior UW-Superior UW-Superior (C bid, 4th place) Gina Baranzelli, Sr, F, UW-Superior
2006-07 UW-Superior UW-Stevens Point UW-Stevens Point (C bid, 3rd place) Amber Lindner, Sr, G, UW-River Falls
2005-06 UW-Stevens Point UW-Stevens Point UW-Stevens Point (C bid, 3rd place) Erin Kegley, Jr, F, UW-Superior
2004-05 UW-Stevens Point UW-Stevens Point UW-Stevens Point (C bid)  
2003-04 UW-Superior UW-Stevens Point UW-Stevens Point (C bid, Runner-Up)  
2002-03 UW-River Falls UW-River Falls UW-River Falls (C bid)  
2001-02 UW-Stevens Point UW-Stevens Point    
2000-01 UW-Superior UW-River Falls