ST. PAUL — There’s a story, of unverifiable origin or accuracy, that’s been told about college hockey in the Twin Cities going back more than a half-century. Supposedly, when John Mariucci left his post coaching the University of Minnesota Gophers men in 1966, he was offered a chance to change college hockey in the region, and turned it down.
The story goes that a group of wealthy and influential alumni from the College of St. Thomas (as it was then known) in St. Paul asked Mariucci to cross the river and start a Division I hockey program there. It didn’t happen, and Mariucci went to work for the upstart Minnesota North Stars instead. But 53 years later, the college presidents who voted to toss the University of St. Thomas out of their conference may eventually accomplish the goal that Mariucci allegedly declined.
The Tommies have competitive and popular men’s and women’s hockey programs that play at the Division III level. But in two years, they won’t have a conference, and are exploring the many options they have for the future of athletics at the Catholic school with about 10,000 students. One option would be to elevate their programs to the D-I level, and they have already been offered a home, if that’s what they choose to do.
“I’ve had one solid conversation with their athletic director. I think they are most certainly in a time of transition and are exploring a lot of options right now. We talked at length about what St. Thomas would look like in the WCHA and I think they would be an outstanding fit if that’s the direction that works for their institution,” said Jennifer Flowers, the incoming women’s WCHA commissioner. “They will have a little bit of work to do from a NCAA perspective in even allowing that to happen, for them to get to the Division I hockey conversation. But they would be a great fit for us if that’s a desire for them. There are things to work through facility-wise and just the process, but the conversations will most certainly continue as they explore what works for them.”
The "NCAA perspective" Flowers mentioned is a lengthy transition process from D-III to D-I that the national governing body mandates. By one estimation, it would take more than a decade for the Tommies to fully make the leap to D-I status, but with an established program, and an 800-seat arena in suburban Mendota Heights that would be the right size for a D-I women’s program, pieces are at least in place that make the jump feasible. The athletic administration at UST is not talking on the record about D-I, or any other level, currently.
“At this time, we do not have anything further to share than what’s already been shared in the media with regards to hockey, or any of our 22 varsity sports,” said Tommies athletic director Phillip Esten, via email. “We have begun an internal assessment of our options and it would be premature for me to speculate on the future plans for our women’s hockey program.”
The Tommies would be the state’s sixth program at the D-I level, which is fitting in Minnesota, where hockey participation numbers are sky high. Two states east, in Michigan, hockey is also a big part of the culture, and they have seven D-I men’s hockey programs. Amazingly, the state has zero D-I women’s hockey programs, but in the Upper Peninsula regional center of Marquette, they’re at least exploring the idea of changing that.
Northern Michigan University, which has a popular and competitive men’s hockey program coached by former Gophers forward Grant Potulny, commissioned an extensive study on the feasibility and the fiscals of starting Michigan’s first top-level women’s hockey program. The study, conducted by Dr. Morris Kurtz, a former St. Cloud State athletic director, makes it clear that it’s not a cheap idea. Marquette is more than 400 miles from Detroit and other downstate population centers, but those in the Michigan hockey community think there’s potential for great success at NMU, and it’s high time for a D-I program in the state.
“We talk about this all the time, and it absolutely is an issue,” said Jean Laxton, the vice president of girl’s/women’s hockey for the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association. “Our numbers are growing at the girls level, and it would make perfect sense for some college to jump on this and offer something more for our girls so they could stay in-state.”
As for the distance to NMU, Laxton’s own daughter played college hockey eight hours from home in Elmira, N.Y., so a seven-hour drive to the U.P. does not seem overly daunting.
“Look at where some of these (Michigan) girls go. They go wherever it takes, and not always to top five schools or Frozen Four teams,” Laxton said. “They’re going away because they want to play.”
While NMU athletic director Forest Karr declined to comment pending the next meeting of the school’s board of regents, it’s telling that the university’s president has already had a face-to-face with Flowers, and they have plans to keep talking.
“I just met with their president in June when we were all together for meetings. I’ll be headed up there in the early fall to spend a little bit more time, but that’s really it for me,” Flowers said. “I’ve read everything and I know based on my conversations with others sort of where they’re at. I’ll reserve judgement and reserve the opportunity to get to know how close they are when I’m up there this fall.”
If the generations-old story is true, and John Mariucci had been interested all those years ago, the Twin Cities today could be similar to Boston, where there is a public school (Boston University) and a private Catholic school (Boston College) competing head-to-head on the ice and to recruit the region’s best college hockey players. Fifty-plus years later, there’s at least a chance of something similar happening in women’s college hockey.