Jeff Boeser and Tom Palkowski played a round of golf on Monday, but the two buddies likely still had the news of five days prior on their mind.
“You kind of pinch yourself that this is actually happening,’’ said Palkowski, the University of St. Thomas women’s hockey coach.
“It’s going to be nice to recruit at a junior game, and the players standing outside the locker room actually want to talk to you,’’ said Boeser, the Tommies men’s hockey coach.
On July 15, the NCAA granted a waiver that will allow St. Thomas to move directly from Division III to Division I without a D-II stopover. Starting in the 2021-22 season, the Tommies will move their 22 teams to D-I, with 19 in the Summit League and one in the Pioneer Football League. The women’s hockey program will play in the WCHA, while the men’s hockey team’s conference home has not been determined.
For Boeser and Palkowski, the move means new challenges and new opportunities. Suddenly, they’re holding the reins of what will become the sixth programs in Minnesota at college hockey’s highest level, competing with Gophers, Bulldogs, Huskies, Mavericks and Beavers.
St. Thomas women’s program, which has been a D-III power in the MIAC, should fit in seamlessly in the WCHA. The Tommies provide the league an eighth team, replacing North Dakota, which dropped women’s hockey in 2017. They’re also centrally located in St. Paul, easing travel issues. “In some ways, it was a no-brainer,’’ said Jennifer Flowers, WCHA women’s commissioner. “It’s an absolute win-win for both of us.’’
Winning big on the ice will be a challenge for the Tommies women, who are joining a conference that features Minnesota (seven national titles), Wisconsin (five) and Minnesota Duluth (five), plus a rising Ohio State program.
“Those are the most storied hockey programs in the country,’’ St. Thomas athletic director Phil Esten said of the WCHA. “To have the ability to compete with them every single weekend, it was a perfect fit for us.’’
Palkowski, who sports a 217-97-40 record with nine MIAC titles and two Frozen Four berths in his 13 years at St. Thomas, acknowledged the gap between D-I and D-III. For example, Hamline, the 2019 NCAA runner-up, lost 9-0 in an exhibition game against the Gophers in November. Still, he sees the challenge as big but not daunting.
“We’ve had a lot of student-athletes who could have played Division I who maybe chose not to, to focus on academics a little bit more,’’ Palkowski said. “And we’ve had some D-I transfers. Going against Minnesota, Wisconsin and other teams in the WCHA is a tall task, but I do think the jump is a little less of the jump vs. the other sports.’’
He also believes the talent in Minnesota – the state had 176 players on D-I women’s rosters in 2019-20, 78 more than second-place Massachusetts – can be help the Tommies compete quickly.
“The recruiting will change a little bit, but thankfully we are in the State of Hockey and we do have the biggest and the best talent pool around,’’ Palkowski said. “Being the sixth D-I team from Minnesota gives us some logistics that certainly should help us out a little bit.’’
Gophers women’s coach Brad Frost welcomed the Tommies to the WCHA and expects a rivalry to develop.
“It’s the Highway 94 rivalry, I suppose,’’ he said. “Only five minutes away. ... It’s going to be exciting.’’
Tommies men await word on conference
For Boeser and the St. Thomas men, there are unknowns. First and foremost is their conference home.
The new Central Collegiate Hockey Association, which conveniently for St. Thomas will begin play in the 2020-21 season, seems to be the most likely landing place for the Tommies. The league is made up of seven breakaway members of the WCHA, and adding St. Thomas would give the league three Minnesota teams – Minnesota State Mankato and Bemidji State are the others – along with four in Michigan and one in Ohio.
CCHA Commissioner Don Lucia has had talks with Esten, and in his introductory news conference in June expressed interest in the program, saying it would be a “nice candidate.’’
Esten stressed that he’s exploring all options.
“As we sit and watch the landscape of college hockey shift a little bit, I’ve had conversations with several people in Division I hockey, and Don’s among them, along with several others,’’ said Esten, a former associate athletic director at Minnesota while Lucia was Gophers men’s hockey coach. “As we look for the right fit from a conference standpoint, it’s not simply our decision to make. We do need to seek and secure an invitation. … That doesn’t happen overnight.’’
Boeser said he’ll likely alter his recruiting strategy slightly in the transition to Division I.
“The last five years, all we’ve recruited is 20-year-old freshmen,’’ said Boeser, who has a 154-80-31 record and six MIAC titles in 10 seasons at St. Thomas. “We’re probably older than the Gophers. That dynamic will probably change a little bit. We’ll probably be going after that junior in high school if he’s exceptional. Don’t get me wrong; if Casey Mittelstadt had said when he was a freshman in high school, ‘I want to go to St. Thomas,’ we would have taken him. We just didn’t get that type of student-athlete.’’
Where they’ll play
Where the Tommies men’s and women’s hockey programs will play in the long term is uncertain. For the immediate future, they’ll remain at St. Thomas Ice Arena, adjacent to St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights. The rink’s capacity is 1,000, and drew 1,183 one night during the 2019 Division III women’s Frozen Four. Still, only two Division I men’s programs have an arena with a smaller capacity.
“We’ll certainly take a look at student-athlete amenities from a recruiting standpoint and an experience standpoint, fan amenities, as well as revenue opportunities in those,’’ Esten said, raising the possibility of building an arena. “We’ll have to assess how that plays out over time.’’
Esten also raised the possibility of using bigger facilities in the Twin Cities from time to time. “On occasion we may compete in a game where we need something larger … and we may take a look at that,’’ he said.
Wherever the play, the Tommies will be stepping up in stature a little over a year from now.
“We’re already starting to ramp it up,’’ Boeser said. “It’s a long road ahead, and we know Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s going to be a process.’’
Staff writer Megan Ryan contributed to this story.