As the variant of the month continues to raise havoc and begrudgingly refuses to fade away, I find the need to daydream even more important. With the high school hockey season now in full swing, my day dreaming is like a kids Christmas wish list dancing in my head.
The D-I Dream
As St. Thomas hockey makes it an even dozen division one hockey programs in Minnesota, and seven more programs in neighboring Michigan, I can’t help but wonder why Wisconsin does not have another top tier hockey program. The Badgers of Madison have established themselves as an elite Division One hockey program, winning a combined twelve NCAA Hockey Championships, six for the men and six for the women. In a virtual ocean of D-I programs, the Badgers remain an island in Wisconsin.
November 26th marked the thirty year anniversary of the passing of Wisconsin’s most influential hockey ambassador, “Badger” Bob Johnson. The architect, who took a mediocre Badger hockey program and turned it into a national powerhouse, with NCAA titles in 1973, 1977 and 1981, would likely be disappointed that the D-I brand has not grown in Wisconsin. An eternal optimist and strategist, Johnson’s vision was always ahead of the curve. In 1991 he took his brilliance to the NHL and won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He remains the only coach to win both a NCAA title and a Stanley Cup.
Wisconsin’s path to a second Division One athletic program will likely have to run through a D-III city and it won’t be an easy trip. The NCAA has implemented regulations that no longer allow single sports to move up within a Division III school. That window closed tightly back in 2007, but allowed many programs like Colorado College and Michigan Tech to grandfather in their D-I hockey programs. More language and obstacles were added in 2010 to effectively end the movement of single sports. Division II hockey schools still have a process to move to D-I, but only because there is no current Division II championship for hockey. St. Thomas appealed the process and the NCAA allowed them to skip the required 12 year process with a sympathy exemption because they had been kicked out of their conference. The transition has been difficult for both of the Tommies’ hockey programs as evidenced in their combined 5-31-1 record to date.
A look at Wisconsin’s Division III hockey candidates reveals a relatively short list. Division One programs are expensive and require an adequate facility and potential fan base. Recent D-I additions across the country have been possible because of large donors and new arenas. Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota is building a $40-million-dollar arena, even though the NCAA has no minimum facility requirements. When you start checking the needed boxes your list quickly narrows to UW- Eau Claire and St. Norbert College in Green Bay. The Blugold men have won a single championship, while the Green Knights have won five. Neither of the women’s programs has, but the Blugolds have been knocking on the door. UW-River Falls and Superior’s proximity to the Twin Cities and Duluth respectively, is appealing, but both communities have populations under 25,000.
It isn’t a new idea and both the Blugold’s and Green Knights have explored the prospect of elevating their hockey programs. SNC did a feasibility study in 1999 and the results indicated the move to D-I would be a resounding success. The NCAA offered SNC three options: 1-Elevate men’s hockey and women’s soccer (there was no women’s hockey program yet) to D-I status and all the other sport to D-II. 2-Become a non-scholarship D-I program. 3. Status quo. Geographically, finding D-II competition for all their sports wasn’t feasible and trying to compete with the likes of Wisconsin & Minnesota without any scholarships to offer were both unworkable solutions. The Knight’s chose the only one they could and according to men’s head coach Tom Coughlin, “it hasn’t been discussed since”. Coughlin continued, “Hockey is a different animal than the other sports” and similar to our own WIAA on a smaller scale, there are seldom people in power that truly understand the game.
The Blugold’s explored the transition process in 2017. They were about to start the process thru College Hockey Inc and with the support of a grant to pay for the feasibility, but the NCAA had made it more difficult to transition to D-I with a moratorium on those reclassification moves or single sport sponsorship. So UW-Eau Claire stopped the process. According to Athletic Director Dan Schumacher, “We did not get that far into the process for the NCAA to give us any options”. Despite the setback, Eau Claire continues to seek solutions. “Blugold Athletics continues to look at our sports module and what interests and ability we can provide and attract student-athletes,” Schumacher commented. “We have recently started three new sports as part of that evaluation and enhancement for enrollment. In the future this could include the opportunity to reclassify our hockey programs to Division I. Nothing has been decided and the process to do so falls in the purview of the NCAA rules on reclassification.”
The logical Wisconsin choice would seem to be UW-Green Bay, but after exploring the hockey possibility in the 1980’s there has been no recent effort. Athletic Director Joshua Moon said it comes back to funding. “I’ve heard of interest from folks in hockey from around this area, and I know hockey has a strong following in this region. It really comes down to budget when discussing sports portfolios at any school – sports like hockey would take a significant investment of external money to be able to work.” With the growth of hockey in the Milwaukee area and the facilities, UW-Milwaukee and Marquette would seem to be logical candidates. UWM explored hockey in 2011 with a feasibility study, but advanced no further. When contacted, Marquette Deputy Athletic Director Michael Broeker succinctly stated, “We aren’t exploring the addition of men’s hockey, nor have we.”
Of the four “major college sports”, Baseball (299), Basketball (353) and Football (129), hockey has just sixty-one
D-I programs. Ironically, eighteen of the current D-I hockey programs are housed within D-II or D-III schools. You would assume the NCAA would support pathways for hockey to grow instead of impeding it with impossible regulations. The large discrepancy isn’t due to a lack of interest in college hockey. There are currently 71 ACHA D-1 hockey schools and over 350 D-II and D-III programs. The road blocks are clearly entrenched in the NCAA’s policies. While the magnitude of the task of transitioning all your sports to Division One is overwhelming, moving a single sport has proven to be quite manageable. What if moving that single sport could provide a financial windfall to help all the other sports? It seems that removing some of the road blocks for hockey would make sense and potentially spark the growth of D-I programs.
On January 10th, the Blugold women, led by head coach Erik Strand, will step into that D-I dream when they will play an exhibition game against the Badgers at LaBahn Arena. For Strand, who in seven seasons has transformed the Blugold women into a national D-III contender, it will be more fuel for a fire inside of him to get the Blugold’s to that D-I dream. “We’re very excited for this opportunity,” said Strand. “The Badgers are arguably one of the best programs in the history of NCAA Women’s Hockey. To have the chance to line up across from them and compete against the best players and best coaching staffs in the country for 60 minutes is a valuable opportunity.”
The growth taking place at UW- Eau Claire, including the building of the new Sonnetag Center and the leadership in place would seem to be the perfect scenario for the birth of new D-I program. Their athletic director is clearly interested and motivated, geographically it is a great spot and both hockey programs are strong and successful. UWEC is a frequent choice on the many lists of the best universities in the country, while the city was recently listed as the third most livable small city in America. And if there is a coach with right blend of optimism, enthusiasm and fortitude, it is Erik Strand. With admitted bias, I believe the Blugolds were poised to win a National Championship in March of 2019, when the pandemic stole away that dream. After just three winning seasons in the programs first fifteen years, the Blugolds have rattled off five consecutive winning seasons and at 13-1, and ranked third in the country, they are well on their way to another.
The wheels of bureaucracy often turn slowly and the massive structure of the NCAA is no different. Getting them to re-open that window to allow single sports to move will require a concerted effort that I believe should include the NHL. Possible solutions could be the creation of a pilot or probationary window for single sports to make the move up or perhaps granting more control to conferences to make these decisions. Like our government, decisions that come from the top are often out of touch with the reality underneath. The St. Thomas exemption gives D-III schools hope that the right scenario could open that door, but the downside is this was an all sport move. If a single sport has the resources and requirements to make a move to D-I, what is the logic in holding them back?
Bob Johnson’s fixated vision for the game of hockey propelled Wisconsin to an elite program. His son’s Mark and Peter have carried on his passion for the game and the entire state of Wisconsin has followed. The parade of players like Craig Ludwig, Phil Kessel, Joe Pavelski, Cole Caufield, Karen Bye Dietz, Molly Engstrom and Jesse Vetter are proof that hockey in the Badger state is thriving. It is time for a progressive and aggressive thinking Wisconsin university to keep “Badger Bob’s” dream, passion and optimistic conquest over adversity alive and “Make it a great day for D-I hockey!”
For a few hours on January 10th when the Badgers and Blugolds carve up the ice at LaBahn Arena, we get a preview of what that “great day” could look like. Don’t pinch me; I don’t want to wake up from this dream…
Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at email@example.com.
MADISON, Wis. – The Wisconsin women's hockey program will add an exhibition game for a good cause on Monday, Jan. 10 as the Badgers will host UW-Eau Claire at LaBahn Arena.
No tickets will be sold in advance for the first-ever meeting, set for 7 p.m., between UW and an in-state school as Wisconsin Athletics is partnering with educators and parents to get books in the backpacks of future Badgers. Fans will need to bring a new or gently used children's book to donate to gain entry to the exhibition game. The Badgers are collecting books specifically for early, level readers: Ages 5–9; first chapter books: Ages 6–9 or 7–10 and middle-grade books: Ages 8–12. No monetary donations will be accepted. The first 2,273 fans that arrive at LaBahn with a book will be able to attend the contest. Season ticket holders should note that the exhibition game was not a part of the season-ticket package and that they will need to bring a book to gain admittance to LaBahn Arena. Parking will be free in Lot 91 two hours before puck drop and one hour following the conclusion of the game.
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