This past summer, the University of St. Thomas, located in St. Paul, Minnesota, was voted out of the Division III Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. The deep-pocketed school had become an ill fit in a conference with other members that didn’t place the emphasis on athletics.
That decision left the Tommies without a home, and looking to potentially move their school to either Division II and Division I.
On Friday, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that St. Thomas has been accepted into the Division I Summit League. The school still needs to file a waiver with the NCAA to approve a move directly from D-III to D-I, but one would assume that having already been accepted into a conference, and the fact that any NCAA rule is malleable with enough money and legal might, they should be able to achieve it.
If they get that approval, St. Thomas would play two more years in the MIAC before moving to Division I in 2021.
The implications for Division I college hockey are obvious, should St. Thomas choose to bring their hockey teams along in the move. On the men’s side, seven members of the current WCHA are scheduled to depart the league and form their own league starting in 2021 as well. While a seven-team conference is doable, it would make a lot of sense for the conference to add an eighth team, and St. Thomas would be an excellent geographic fit. It lessens the travel burden for the western teams in the conference, and being in a major metro area makes travel easier for other members of the conference.
A potential downside of the move is that if the two Alaska programs consolidate into a single school, there may have been a chance for them to become the eighth member of the new conference. But with Arizona State and Alabama-Huntsville also likely being independent, a single Alaska school would probably still be able to piece together enough of a schedule to make a go as an independent program.
It’s a similar situation on the women’s hockey side. The women’s WCHA has been at seven members since North Dakota decided to drop their women’s hockey program. Since going to seven teams, the league has held the line that they don’t necessarily need to expand, but would definitely be open to it if the right possibility presented itself to move to an even eight teams. Earlier this fall, new WCHA women’s commissioner Jennifer Flowers said there had been no real movement on talks to potentially add St. Thomas, but perhaps today’s news would change things. Again, St. Thomas provides an exceptional geographic fit for the conference, with six of the conference’s seven teams within a five hour drive of the conference.
It’s not necessarily a given that their hockey programs make the jump with some serious hurdles still in the way. The largest issue may be a facility. The Tommies currently play off campus at the St. Thomas Arena, which is a nice facility, but with only 1000 seats, probably not acceptable for whatever the new iteration of the WCHA will be called. Prior to St. Thomas Arena, the Tommies played at the Warner Coliseum on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, which has the necessary seat capacity, but has not been used for hockey since the ice-making equipment died in 2013.
St. Thomas has a healthy and wealthy alumni base, so they could potentially find a way to make things work. But the move to Division I will be expensive all the way around, and who knows how high of a priority hockey will be.
Still the possibilities are very exciting, and actually seem fairly realistic. St. Thomas would be an exceptional fit on both the men’s and women’s sides of the game. Hopefully they can work out all the issues and be ready to compete in two years time.