[Cross-posted at Women’s Hockey Nation]
So you’ve discovered the NWHL. And how can you not love a league where the game is delayed because a team bus got lost on the way to the rink, and the players (well, player) break into spontaneous juggling. Perhaps you are a women’s sports fan but this is your first exposure to hockey. Perhaps you are a die-hard hockey person but have never watched the women’s game before. Perhaps you think this is all you need of the women’s hockey experience. Let me be the first to say: try college hockey!
I remember watching the inaugural WNBA game on the floor of some friends’ living room in New York, and frankly being embarrassed at the awful quality of the basketball. It took about a decade for the NCAA to provide enough players to change the tenor of the pro league for good. In hockey, this process has already happened. The best college teams are creating the best pro players. Marie-Philip Poulin, whose name is mangled by more people who should know better on a daily basis, scored three goals in her first weekend in the CWHL. Tomorrow’s national team stars hone their skills weekly in D-I match-ups.
Those match-ups also provide a dose of good old-fashioned rivalry. The NWHL is also too young and too full of goodwill to have created team allegiances and enmities. We all love everybody! Bah! While women’s NCAA battles cannot compete in age with those in some men’s sports, they certainly match up in intensity. WCHA programs hate each other, as do those with geographical and historical ties, like upstate New York highway rivalries, the Beanpot teams, etc. There are also passionate, knowledgeable, long-suffering fanbases of many teams who will be the first to tell you of slights long-remembered and how annoying or inane various mascots are. This includes those who go back to the pre-NCAA era, another source of hockey lore.
With the new American league which isolates American and Canadian players largely in their own fiefdoms, we are also now not seeing the world’s best compete with each other anymore. Familiarity in this instance failed to breed contempt, but instead largely took the edge off the nastiness we used to see in the Canada-US encounters while at the same time greatly improving the play. Now the college stage is where Northerners and Less Northerners break bread together and make fun of each others’ accents and taste in music. If you want to see opposing national team players streak down the wing together, this is the place.
Also important is not just international but intranational diversity. Here in the states, Minnesota is the font of all things hockey, and they are shut out of the NWHL picture so far. It makes perfect economic sense for the four NWHL teams to be in easy reach of one another (even if the Pride need GPS to navigate Brooklyn). But the NCAA empire stretches into the hockey heartland as far West as North Dakota and as far south as Missouri (*Insert obligatory Missouri joke here, although I am listening to Eric Church while writing this so I don’t have much of a leg to stand on).
This is the most exciting time to be a fan of women’s college hockey. The balance of power is shifting in unpredictable ways. There has never been more parity and more young talent flowing to the game. Scoring records will continue to fall. Just a scant season ago, Clarkson won the national championship in stunning fashion over juggernaut Minnesota. This year could see the first Hockey East team to gain a national title in the NCAA era. New teams are being added and some conferences are becoming competitive for the first time. In short, if you love the NWHL, there is even more to love about the bigger, broader, even more bracing college hockey landscape.