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UND cuts women's hockey, men's and women's swimming

UND Athletics Director Brian Faison announces that UND will be cutting the women's hockey program along with men's and women's swimming and diving on Wednesday, March 29, 2017 at the Gorecki Alumni Center in Grand Forks, N.D. (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)

GRAND FORKS -- The University of North Dakota women’s hockey team, which sent eight players in the 2014 Olympic Games, was cut Wednesday afternoon along with the men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams.

The cuts are part of a school-wide effort to trim budgets because of an anticipated drop in state funding.

UND President Mark Kennedy told the athletics department it needed to cut $1.3 million out of its budget and asked athletic director Brian Faison to send him proposals.

Kennedy said he was not involved in the cutting process other than giving the athletic department a monetary target and accepting Faison’s proposal.

The school announced its decision at a press conference Wednesday at the Gorecki Alumni Center.

"This was a difficult decision," Faison said. "It's a sad day when opportunities for our student-athletes are reduced. The university is going through campus-wide, state-mandated budget cuts. As a part of the university, we needed to do what is in the long-term, best interests of the university, as well as the best interests of the athletic department."

Faison and Kennedy informed the teams of the decision at a 2:45 p.m. meetingl, but the athletes and staff members had already learned the fate of their programs through social media and news reports.

The women’s hockey team was skating on the ice when news broke. They also had a recruit, goalie Lauren Hennessy, arrive on an official visit from Massachusetts on Wednesday afternoon.

“Anger, shock, frustration, disappointment, and understandably so,” Faison said of the reaction he received. “One thing some people don’t understand with teams in particular is that it’s family. What you’re doing is ripping family apart -- and that was very much evident with both of these teams. There’s a sense of family that’s going to be gone. It’s not that they’re not going to be good friends the rest of their life, it’s just different. And we’ve taken that away.”

The elimination of the three programs adds up to roughly $3 million according to numbers obtained in an open record request -- $1.9 from women’s hockey and just over $900,000 from the swimming and diving programs.

Some of that money will be reallocated into scholarships for other programs.

UND will move from the Big Sky Conference to the Summit League in the fall of 2018. The Summit League requires at least seven sports be funded at 85 percent of NCAA scholarship limits.

UND is currently at that mark in men’s basketball, women’s basketball, volleyball, women’s soccer. It is within two scholarships of reaching that point in women’s golf, softball and women’s track and field.

Women’s hockey stuns region

The elimination of the women’s hockey program sent shock waves through the region.

UND is known for being a hockey school, where both the men’s and women’s programs play in the opulent $104-million Ralph Engelstad Arena.

The men’s team has a long, storied history of eight national championships, while the women’s team started to build its own history in its short 15 years as a program.

UND has had 12 Olympians overall, including eight at the most recent Games. It could have as many as 10 at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The most prominent of the group are Grand Forks natives and twin sisters Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux, who transferred from powerhouse Minnesota to UND in 2010 after their freshman seasons in order to build the program.

UND reached the NCAA quarterfinals twice with the Lamoureuxs, who also helped to attract future Olympians in Finland’s Michelle Karvinen, Anna Kilponen, Vilma Tanskanen, Susanna Tapani and Germany’s Tanja Eisenschmid.

The Lamoureux twins were in Plymouth, Mich., preparing for the IIHF Women’s World Championship when they heard that the women’s hockey team was being cut.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Jocelyne said. “The president said he wanted national championships. It was in the future for UND women's hockey.

“To have this happen with the growing success they were having and the Olympians they’ve had is just really unfortunate.”

UND will have to pay a $50,000 fee for leaving the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

WCHA commissioner Katie Million released a statement that said: “Today’s developments are excruciatingly sad for the University of North Dakota, the WCHA and the sport of women’s hockey. While we understand the significant, state-mandated budget cuts faced by the entire University and respect the decision-making process of the UND administration, there is no denying the impact of losing a program that has produced Olympians, advanced to NCAA tournaments and is a perennial fixture in the national rankings.”

The contracts of head coach Brian Idalski and assistant coach Erik Fabian both have one year left and they will be paid out in full.

UND also will honor the scholarships for those athletes who don’t transfer to other schools.

Not the first round

The athletic department has been consumed by tension for more than a year now with the threat of cuts hanging over its head.

Last April, UND cut baseball and men’s golf, but later brought back men’s golf as long as it hits fundraising benchmarks. It needs to be fully endowed by June 1, 2018, or it will be dissolved.

A few months later, Kennedy asked the Intercollegiate Athletics Committee to examine all areas of the department -- including how many sports it sponsors -- after a $1.4 million shortfall in the budget.

The process lasted a couple of months and included a day when coaches and athletes of sports on the chopping block made presentations and begged committee members and Kennedy not to cut their sport.

In the end, the committee recommended to Kennedy that he increase revenues and keep all 20 sports.

Kennedy accepted that recommendation and said he would no longer look at cutting sports during his tenure as president.

But that only lasted three months.

“I never look backwards and second guess things,” Kennedy said. “I don’t know we would have all the information in terms of what the legislature would have required of us. It’s possible we would have done something different. We didn’t image a 20 percent cut. I can’t go back and re-judge that moment.

“I think (the cut in state funding) was a surprise to everyone. When I came here July 1, everyone was saying to me how great it is that President (Ed) Schafer is taking all the cuts so you don’t have to. That was the mentality. The IAC came after that. I don’t think anyone was anticipating the magnitude of the cuts we would be absorbing would be at this level we are currently doing.”

Kennedy also said upon his arrival that his vision for UND athletics is not necessarily the quantity of programs, but to be highly successful at the ones they do sponsor.

Although women’s hockey has produced 12 Olympians, Kennedy and Faison said that costs determined the course of action.

“At the end of the day, there was nothing easy about the women’s hockey decision, particularly, when you look at the sport at a national level and you see that you have 35 teams and now you’re down to 34,” Faison said. “That’s something we wanted to be a part of, but at the end of the day, the dollars and cents of it, and our ability to sustain what we needed to do to keep it moving forward. It had to be a combination and that was the combination.”

Faison also said he doesn’t regret adding cost of attendance scholarships -- additional funds to players that go beyond tuition, room and board and books -- to its programs two years ago. That increased costs by more than $700,000.

“I think that’s been important for recruiting purposes for a lot of our programs,” Faison said. “Bubba (Schweigert) would tell you that. Brian Jones would tell you that as well and I think Mark Pryor would tell you that as well. We had to do what we needed to do.”

Swimming historically successful

The men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams were powerhouses in the Division II days.

The women’s team won 23 consecutive North Central Conference titles from 1982 to 2004, and piled up 20 individual national champions and 10 relay titles.

The men’s team won 21 of 23 North Central Conference titles from 1986 to 2008, when the school moved to NCAA Division I. They won 10 individual national titles and 15 relay championships.

At the Division I level, UND has participated in the Conference USA postseason meet and is currently a member of the Western Athletic Conference.

Swimming and diving would have had a home under the same umbrella as the rest of the athletic department -- sans football and hockey -- in the Summit League next season.

Faison said UND won’t face a financial penalty for leaving the WAC or for not entering the Summit.

The swimming and diving programs had seen a resurgence in recent years under fourth-year coach Chris Maiello, whose teams broke 22 school records in his first three years at the helm.

Diving coach Brian Strom, who has been with the school for 27 years, recently applied for a buyout from the school.

Maiello declined to immediately comment.

Gay Williamson, a former UND swimmer and booster of both swimming and women’s hockey, said: “This is a very disappointing message to women’s sports in general and hockey in particular. When a hockey school cuts women’s hockey, what message does that send to the rest of the world?

“President Kennedy mentioned early last fall that sports are the “front porch” of the home - the one that invites people to look further.  In my estimation women’s hockey and men’s and women’s swimming and diving have already passed that test and had the potential to do much more.”

Outcry on Twitter

Current and former players took to social media to express their thoughts, as did others from the women’s hockey world.

“Today, UND successfully ripped apart a team and family,” UND forward Sarah Lecavalier wrote. “Hockey was the blood that ran through the veins of this university.”

Former St. Cloud State goalie Katie Fitzgerald, who now plays in the NWHL, referenced Tuesday’s historic agreement for USA Hockey to pay the U.S. Women’s National Team.

“It's a sad day in the women's hockey world,” Fitzgerald said. “Many battles win the war. Yesterday, we won. Today, we lost. Very sorry for all those impacted.”

Men’s hockey players also chimed in.

“All programs cut, especially @UNDWhockey, have historically been championship-level,” former UND goalie Zane McIntyre, now of the Boston Bruins, said. “I am very sorry to all affected by @myUND's decision.”

Swimmers commented on Twitter.

“Hard to believe it’s actually over,” distance swimmer Katie Stover wrote.

Brad Elliott Schlossman

Schlossman is in his 12th year covering college hockey for the Herald. In 2016, he was named the top beat writer in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors. He has voted in the national college hockey poll since 2007 and has served as a member of the Hobey Baker and Patty Kazmaier Award committees.

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