March 14, 2012

From NEHJ: Women's Hockey East breaking new ground

By Scott Sudikoff

The Women’s Hockey East Association, now in its 10th season of existence, was set to make league history March 3 and 4 when the league’s tournament semifinals and championship game take place at the Hyannis Youth and Community Center (HYCC) on Cape Cod. 

BU’s seniors led the Terriers to the national title game a year ago — a first for Women’s Hockey East. (Photo: Tom Maguire)

The nine previous championship tournaments have either been hosted on a predetermined campus site, or by the top remaining seed in the tournament.

This move is yet another example of expansion in the league, which moved from six to eight teams in 2005-06 with the additions of Boston University and the University of Vermont.

Another sign of evolution in the league is the emergence of new teams at the top of the standings. Providence College and the University of New Hampshire dominated the first seven years, with the two schools combining for each of the regular-season and tournament championships.

BU and Boston College emerged the past two seasons, winning the conference tournament in 2010 and 2011, respectively. This season has seen Northeastern University win its first regular-season title.

For a league that has been around for only 10 years, there has been exceptional growth in the competitiveness of the programs.

“If we (had) set goals at the start of what the level of play would be at, we’re kind of right on schedule with the one glaring omission,” Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna said.

That omission, of course, is the lack of a national champion. But that may change this year with the potential of Northeastern and Boston College.

Most know that Hockey East on the men’s side provides the best college hockey in the nation, but there is still some work to be done on the women’s side.

“We’re all cheerleaders to an extent for our own cause,” said Bertagna (Arlington, Mass.) “To be honest, with the WCHA and the continued dominance of Wisconsin, (they have) a little bit of a step on the rest of us.”

Wisconsin has won four of the past six national championships, including last year’s championship over BU. The runner-up placement by the Terriers is the only time a Hockey East school has advanced that far in NCAA tournament play.

The league in total has 11 NCAA appearances, including five by UNH.

“I think we’re right there; we in fact may have even passed the ECAC now,” added Bertagna, who spent 15 years in the ECAC and helped launch its women’s league.

Of course, with just eight current teams and the men’s league having 10 teams, there is room for growth in terms of programs.

“We’re not set up like a pro league that can make those decisions from a centralized vantage point,” Bertagna said. “We’re at the mercy of the activity on a given campus.”

According to Bertagna, there have been discussions within Merrimack College to potentially add a women’s hockey program, and due to its men’s program being in Hockey East, a women’s squad would gain automatic acceptance. All programs that have a men’s team are chartered into the women’s league.

When fans think of Hockey East, they may be quick to point out the Boston schools such as BU and BC, but for Bertagna and the league itself, they would love to see every school be at the top. 

“It probably helps when you get down to championships for attendance,” Bertagna said about the success of the Boston-area schools. “Just like for our men’s league, though, I want to see the gap between the top and bottom be as thin as possible.”

The host of this year’s Women’s Hockey East Championship — the 105,000-square-foot full-service Hyannis Youth and Community Center, including the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Memorial Skating Rink — has served as a host for previous Division 1 men’s hockey games.

“Colgate University and Army have played in the Kennedy Rink the last two years, and it has been an honor to host NCAA Division 1 men’s hockey here in Hyannis,” said Joe Izzo, the general manager of the HYCC.

The facility, which opened in September 2009, also has played host to the Boston Blades of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, as well as the inaugural Light House Invitational Tournament featuring four Div. 3 schools.

“The HYCC is excited to add Women’s Hockey East Championship weekend to our growing list of distinct hockey events,” Izzo added.

With the tournament coming to town, the HYCC had to prepare itself for the extra attendance as well as media presence that the Hockey East can bring.

“With some help from employees from the town of Barnstable and volunteers, (we) will work to spruce up the facility and make it as warm and welcoming as possible for the teams who will play here,” Izzo said. “There has been a buzz in the community about the event and the local shops and restaurants are excited for the weekend.”

Having the Hockey East come to the Cape opens up new doors for fans and for future athletes who may not have been privy to such strong hockey action.

The top four seeds advanced to the semifinals. First-place Northeastern was slated to play No. 4 Providence in the first game March 3, followed by No. 2 BC vs. No. 3 BU.

“Our goal is to show Hockey East and everyone who travels here the first weekend in March that we have a beautiful facility with a community that is passionate about hockey,” Izzo said.

Bertagna does not see the weekend in Hyannis as a one-time occurrence for Hockey East. He’s hopeful that the league can continue to extend its reach.

“(This is) something we may want to expand on in the regular season and maybe go north of Boston next time,” Bertagna said. “About 1,500 fans could be a tremendous crowd for our championship game.”

Where will Women’s Hockey East be in another 10 years?

“I’d like to see the number of programs and opportunities for female hockey players to be increased, whether that’s 10 or 12 teams,” Bertagna said. “I’d like to say, like the men, there’s nobody above us, maybe some right beside us.”

Throw in some national championships and you have a winning formula for Women’s Hockey East going forward.

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Scott Sudikoff can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com