Thursday, 12 April 2012

WCHA remain Queen Bees of NCAA ice hockey

Despite the best efforts of rival conferences such as College Hockey America, ECAC, and Hockey East, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association claimed their 12th consecutive NCAA Frozen Four women’s title in March 2012. Despite the best efforts of schools such as Cornell and Boston College, the elusive Frozen Four championship remains a dream for them to attempt to claim next spring.
In a deserving finish, the top two ranked teams (both from the WCHA) played each other for the right to be called national champion. The Wisconsin Badgers (WCHA regular season champions) and Minnesota Golden Gophers (WCHA tournament champions) escalated their already intense, visceral rivalry to another level in an epic battle to be named National Champion.
Although NCAA hockey offers an extremely high level of competition (with 32 teams competing), the dominance of the WCHA in the Frozen Four makes the thought of parity an unlikely one. Many women’s sports at all levels seem to be defined by a high level of dominance by an elite few, while the rest just limp by year by year. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League is dominated by the Montreal Stars, while Canada and the United States have dominated every tournament offered by the International Ice Hockey Federation.
Other conferences have been very aggressive in recruiting, while many key records in NCAA hockey are not held by WCHA schools.  The all-time leading scorer (Meghan Agosta) and the all-time wins leader (Hillary Pattenden) in NCAA hockey are both from Mercyhurst, a College Hockey America school. Ironically, top schools such as Minnesota and Wisconsin tend to recruit from their home states. Despite passing on some bigger names, these two schools still find ways to remain the Queen Bees of NCAA ice hockey.
While Shannon Miller of Minnesota-Duluth has won five national championships by recruiting many Canadian and European players, this has not always yielded positive results for other schools. How can programs such as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Minnesota-Duluth find the way to win while others fail? At this point, there is such a psychological edge on all other schools, which it just seems like an insurmountable challenge.
Eventually, another conference will claim the NCAA Frozen Four, but the answer lies in coaching. Since the early 2000s, the top teams in the WCHA have been defined by their outstanding coaches. Minnesota landed Laura Halldorson (and then Brad Frost), Ohio State (despite not winning a Frozen Four) had a great leader in Jackie Barto. Meanwhile, Wisconsin obtained Mark Johnson (son of Badger Bob Johnson, and a member of the 1980 Miracle on Ice team). Minnesota-Duluth set the precedent when they recruited Shannon Miller.
Not only is she deserving of a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame, but her contributions to international hockey, and her ability to motivate made her a prized acquisition for the Minnesota-Duluth program. Another aspect of Miller’s legacy (which has also made Minnesota-Duluth so powerful) is her ability to land top people as key assistant coaches. Winter Games silver medallist Stacy Wilson was a great asset in the early years of the program. Caroline Ouellette and Julie Chu brought youth to the coaching staff and benefitted greatly from Miller’s wisdom. Recently, Laura Schuler (a former head coach herself) has been a great asset to the Minnesota-Duluth coaching staff.
Katey Stone of Harvard (ECAC), and Doug Derragh of Cornell (ECAC) are superlative coaches, and the proof is in their contributions to coaching on their national teams (USA and Canada). Katie King of Boston College (Hockey East) is another coach that manages to keep her teams competitive. All three coaches have recruited extremely well and represent the best opportunity to snap the WCHA winning streak that has accumulated over the years.
The key question is, when will the streak stop? The best answer seems to lie in the 2013-14 NCAA season. With the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, it is likely that some coaching staffs will be disrupted (especially if Wisconsin’s Mark Johnson returns as USA head coach). In addition, any Canadian or American hopefuls for a Winter Games squad are expected to sacrifice an entire NCAA season to attend their respective countries training camps. 
Although many European players managed to make an appearance at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games while missing little time with their NCAA schools during the 2009-10 season, there is the issue of burnout. With more Europeans in the NCAA, and the fact that the Winter Games are in Sochi, Russia, the time and travel involved may result in some European players missing the entire 2013-14 NCAA season.
Other ECAC schools such as Clarkson, Dartmouth and Quinnipiac have recruited aggressively (landing Canadian National Under 18 players such as Erin Ambrose, Laura Stacey and Nicole Connery) and present opportunities for a wonderful Cinderella story in 2014. Although these highly touted recruits may be part of the 2018 Winter Games, they will likely participate for their respective schools in the 2013-14 NCAA season. Along with stars such as Lindsey Holdcroft (Dartmouth) and Kelly Babstock (Quinnipiac) entering their senior years in 2014, the foundation that has been built can provide any of these teams with the necessary edge to fly below the radar and be the Cinderella team that claims a Frozen Four for a team outside of the WCHA.

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