Entering its 16th year of existence in 2015-16, the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association Women's Conference 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 Conference that spans from Minnesota and Wisconsin through Illinois and Michigan.
The 2013-14 season started a new era, featuring changes in the conference membership and a pair of new trophies to compete for. Adrian College, Concordia University Wisconsin, Finlandia University, Lake Forest College, Marian University, St. Norbert College and the College of St. Scholastica will battle for the Slaats Cup, named after Lake Forest Director of Athletics Jackie Slaats - a major contributor to the formation of the Conference. The Slaats Cup will be awarded to the winner of the Slaats Cup Playoffs, as will the NCHA's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The winner of the regular season championship will be awarded the Kronschnabel Trophy, named after former NCHA Commissioner and Supervisor of Officials Bill Kronschnabel.
The structure and history of the original NCHA Men's Conference certainly provided a spring board for the creation of the Women's Conference 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 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 eventually 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 nearly 200 student-athletes on its seven 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 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 and evolved at a faster pace 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 11 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 feat was done again in 2012-13, with St. Norbert winning the playoff title and UW-River Falls getting 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. In the 2009-10 season, the format called for eight teams qualifying for the playoffs. The quarterfinal round featured a 2+mini game format, while the semifinals and finals were single-elimination games played at the site of the highest remaining seed. The championship game has been decided by one goal eight times through the first 12 finals.
NCHA Women's Champions
|Year||Regular Season||Playoff Champion||NCAA Tournament Teams||Player of the Year|
|2015-16||Adrian||Adrian||Adrian (A bid, First Round)||Michelle Greeneway, Sr, F, Lake Forest
|2014-15||Adrian||Lake Forest||Lake Forest (A bid, First Round)||Nina Waidacher, Sr, F, St. Scholastica|
|2013-14||Lake Forest||Lake Forest||Lake Forest (A bid, First Round)||Michelle Greeneway, So, F, Lake Forest|
||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
Adrian (A 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|