While much will look familiar in the WCHA Women’s League – defending national champion Wisconsin is the preseason pick to win the conference and the NCAA runner-up Gophers are right behind – there will be change for the 2019-20 season and talk of future expansion.
The league held its preseason conference call with media members on Wednesday, and three-on-three overtime was a hot topic.
The WCHA this season will become the first women’s conference to adopt a five-minute three-on-three OT period that would follow the NCAA-mandated five minutes of five-on-five OT. A shootout would follow if the score still is tied after both OT periods. The rule would apply to conference games only, with an extra point in the standings going to the winning team.
“I’m very excited about it,’’ said Gophers coach Brad Frost, a proponent of three-on-three OT. “With our league continuing to move forward with different experimental things like three-on-three overtime, it certainly looks to be where hockey is going. … From personally watching the NHL and men’s college hockey, I love when it gets to three-on-three.’’
Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson voted against the format, but he’s warming to it.
“I was outvoted,’’ he said with a chuckle. “It’ll be a trial year for us. When the NHL tried it, the fans enjoyed it and it was an experience that was very positive. I look forward to the same type of situation. It’ll be challenging, it’ll be fun – more space, more scoring opportunities.’’
Another emerging item: the possibility of expansion in the future. The women’s league has seven teams – Minnesota, Wisconsin, Bemidji State, Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota State, Ohio State and St. Cloud State – and Commissioner Jennifer Flowers has talked with both Northern Michigan and St. Thomas. Northern Michigan is considering adding women’s hockey as a varsity sport, while St. Thomas, a strong NCAA Division III program, is being forced out of the MIAC and could decide to move up to Division I.
“I’ve had conversations with both of those institutions – nothing that is formal and nothing that’s really worth speaking of more than that,’’ said Flowers, who took over as commissioner this summer after Katie Million left to become director of women’s national team programs for USA Hockey. “We do know what Northern Michigan is hoping to accomplish on their campus, and St. Thomas is doing their own studies.
“For us as a league, we’re really remaining firm the fact that we don’t have to expand. We want to make sure that we are expanding with institutions that have the same values we have,’’ Flowers added. “… The conversations are happening, but no real movement at this point.’’
For Minnesota Duluth coach Maura Crowell, the more, the merrier in the WCHA.
“We’re dying to get an eighth team in the WCHA, and I don’t see why it would have to stop at eight,’’ she said. “If there are other qualified teams that are looking to add women’s hockey, that’s only going to make us stronger and make our league more competitive.’’
On the ice, Wisconsin enters the season with the favorite’s label. In the WCHA preseason coaches poll, the Badgers were the pick to win the conference, getting the maximum six first-place votes for 36 points to outdistance the Gophers, who had 31 points and the other first-place vote (coaches couldn’t vote for their own team). Ohio State was picked third, followed by Minnesota Duluth, Bemidji State, Minnesota State and St. Cloud State.
“Like the last bunch of years, it’s going to be a very competitive league,’’ said Johnson, whose team was edged by the Gophers for the 2018-19 regular-season title but beat Minnesota for the WCHA and NCAA tournament crowns.
The Badgers have the preseason WCHA co-player of the year in senior forward Abby Roque, who shares the honor with Ohio State junior forward Emma Maltais. Wisconsin also landed forward Sophie Shirley, defender Mekenzie Steffen and goalie Kristen Campbell on the preseason all-conference team.
For the Gophers, freshman defender Madeline Wethington was named preseason rookie of the year, while junior forward Grace Zumwinkle was named to the all-conference team.
“The excitement level is extremely high,’’ Frost said. “I feel like we have a really nice team on paper, and the question is where that goes throughout the year as we continue to coach them up and get to know them better and they get to know each other.’’
WCHA Preseason Coaches Poll
Team (first-place votes), total
Wisconsin (6) 36
Minnesota (1) 31
Ohio State 24
Minnesota Duluth 23
Bemidji State 15
Minnesota State 12
St. Cloud State 6
Note: Totals based on a 6-5-4-3-2-1 scale. Coaches could not vote for their own teams.
Preseason WCHA Player of the Year
Tie: Abby Roque, senior forward, Wisconsin; and Emma Maltais, junior forward, Ohio State (two votes each).
Preseason WCHA Rookie of the Year
Madeline Wethington, freshman defender, Minnesota (three votes).
Preseason All-WCHA team
F: Emma Maltais, Jr., Ohio State
F: Grace Zumwinkle, Jr., Minnesota
F: Abby Roque, Sr., Wisconsin (tie)
F: Sophie Shirley, So., Wisconsin (tie)
D: Jincy Dunne, Sr., Ohio State
D: Mekenzie Steffen, Sr., Wisconsin
G: Kristen Campbell, Sr., Wisconsin