The WCHA—and for the record, it’s not the ‘women’s WCHA’ any more than it is the ‘men’s NCHC’ now that the WCHA men’s league is officially dissolved—held their annual preseason media day teleconference on Wednesday afternoon with the commissioner and each of the league’s eight teams talking about the upcoming season and taking questions from the media.
Press conferences like this usually aren’t particularly illuminating compared to what you see on the ice. But until the puck drops on exhibition games later this week, and then for real when the season begins in a couple weeks, it is all we have to go on.
So here were my notes on what stood out as notable to me in the league’s preseason media day.
First up was WCHA commissioner Jennifer Flowers. The overall feeling was excitement for what is likely to be a more normal year after last year’s roller coaster. The league’s playoff format is back to the usual two-week format with 1-4 hosting 5-8 in the first round, and then the league’s tournament championship being held the next weekend. The addition of St. Thomas also means the league is back to eight teams making for a full schedule with the potential for every team to be in action on any given weekend.
If the league does run into any Covid issues, any affected games will be ruled no contest and won’t be made up. If games have to be rescheduled for other, unforeseen circumstances, they’ll still be ruled no contest but the league will make an effort to reschedule.
The league is also excited about their new partnership with the Big Ten Network, which will host all conference games on their streaming platform after games were split between BTN and FloSports last season. Big Ten Network will also air two games, still to be announced, on TV this year.
New head coach Joel Johnson called the experience of taking over a program moving to D-1 “blurry” with the speed at which things moved in terms of trying to get everything set up and establish relationships with his team.
Adding to Johnson’s plate in this inaugural D-1 season are his responsibilities with the US women’s national team in an Olympic year. Johnson said he was able to structure practices and schedules as such that he’ll be able to do both unless he is traveling with Team USA. at He felt confident that things wouldn’t change all that much with his assistant coaches handling things.
As far as what to expect from the Tommies in this season, Johnson said he just wants his team to compete. He said as the season progresses, they’ll get a better idea of what it means to compete in the WCHA, and what realistic expectations might look like.
A theme from both head coach Maura Crowell and Gabbie Hughes was that preparation for this season began immediately after the Bulldogs lost in the Frozen Four last year. There is a lot of motivation for the Bulldogs to get back to that level this year.
A big help towards reaching that goal will be transfer Elizabeth Giguere, a former Patty Kaz winner who transferred into the program from Clarkson this summer. In a situation like that, there may be difficulty integrating a talented player like that into an existing group, but the first thing mentioned by both Crowell and Hughes was how smooth of a transition Giguere has made into the UMD program and how well she has fit into the team. While that certainly falls into a situation where you’d never hear them say the opposite, I think it is worth assigning those types of comments some merit that when asked, both were quick to point out things Giguere had done at UMD, rather than things she had done at Clarkson.
One of the big challenges for Wisconsin this offseason was just figuring out who would be on their team between players potentially coming back for a Covid super-senior year and figuring out which players would be centralized with their respective national teams. Mark Johnson, perhaps quietly making a point on some omissions, mentioned his staff was incorrect on a couple of their guesses.
Regardless, the Badgers are still going to be very good with their eye on another national title.
Also, Daryl Watts called Wisconsin’s win over Providence in the NCAA quarterfinals—the one, if you’ll recall, where Providence didn’t get a shot on goal in the first period and flirted with the record for lowest shot total in a tournament game—”probably one of [Wisconsin’s] worst games of the season” which likely wasn’t a commentary on last year’s NCAA selection process, but I cackled at nonetheless.
The stand out comment from head coach Brad Frost’s appearance was that this offseason was the most motivated he has seen his team in a number of years. Again, it’s not like you’d expect him to say the opposite, but whether that is true or not, and whether it can translate into results on the ice will be the key to Minnesota’s season. I think few people would argue Minnesota’s struggles last year came down to a lack of talent. It’s a matter of putting all that talent together.
Some new voices behind the bench could help too, with Minnesota adding two new assistants after Joel Johnson was hired at St. Thomas. That might especially be the case with Natalie Darwitz, a legend in the game, who Frost mentioned as really grabbing the players’ attention when she speaks.
It is perhaps no surprise that the strongest statement of the event came from one of the league’s most colorful coaches, Nadine Muzerall. The Buckeyes’ goal this year is simple. They used to aspire to the Frozen Four, and now they’re looking to win a national championship.
Goalie Andrea Braendli is in a unique position, headed to the Olympics later this season with Switzerland, who doesn’t centralize their roster. Braendli thought playing night-in and night-out in the WCHA was the best preparation she could have for playing at the international level, however.
The Mavericks return a couple key super seniors in Brittyn Fleming and Jess Kondas and they feel pretty confident in goal with Calla Frank returning. But it is their group of now sophomores that are really going to be driving the bus for the Mavericks this year. Of that group, Jamie Nelson finally started to receive some of the credit she deserved, drawing attention from USA Hockey to skate with the national program, but head coach John Harrington specifically pointed out fellow sophomore Sydney Langseth as a player that is very underrated—something I could not agree not agree more with.
The Beavers have a huge roster at 28 players this season. Last year they had a big senior class, and a big incoming freshman class set to replace them, but with players granted an extra year due to Covid and some players returning as super seniors, it’s a crowded group. They’ll need that big group to replace the contributions of their two best players over the past few years in Clair DeGeorge and Mak Langei.
Goals for the Beavers are relatively modest, given what they’re up against in the deep WCHA, but senior Claudia Verkerke said the teams was looking to put together a winning record this season.
St. Cloud State
It’s always tough for the Huskies to make headway in such a strong, deep league. But head coach Steve Macdonald was excited about a revamped blue line with a lot of new faces that should make immediate contributions. Leading the way in new names he mentioned were Alberta rookie Dayle Ross and Robert Morris transfer Chace Sperling, who overcame a horrific rollerblading accident last year that almost cost her her leg.
The Huskies returns hands down the best goaltending duo in the league in super senior Emma Polusny and sophomore Sanni Ahola. If they can get some more help from the defense in front of them, they’ll be a very tough team to score on.