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Should There Be a Women’s NTDP?

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 10 - United States v Sweden Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

There was big news in the women’s hockey world today when the US women’s national team announced that they would be boycotting the upcoming women’s World Championships held at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Michigan.

There are others far more qualified to speak on some of the issues raised by the women’s national team today. There was one issue brought up among the many today that caught my interest though, and I think is worth at least discussing.

The idea of an NTDP-like program for women’s hockey has come to my mind more than a few times. I’m not sure I’m in favor of it, but I do think it is certainly worth discussing. Today made me think about it more, and a couple questions sprang to mind.

  1. Who pays for it?

Go to any rink in the United States and you’re likely to find some stereotype of an old white guy whining about his/his kid’s $40 USA Hockey registration fee subsidizing the NTDP. This isn’t true. The $3.5 million or whatever USA Hockey spends on the NTDP each year comes from the NHL as money for future player development.

The NHL likes having American-born players like Auston Matthews in the league. It sells more tickets. It sells more jerseys. It gets them more exposure. There’s an economic argument to be made that it’s a good investment. The debate about how much the NTDP itself contributes to creating a player like Auston Matthews is never-ending, but the NHL(and myself) seems to buy into the idea that it is valuable.

I strongly believe there is also benefit to them providing development money for the women’s game, as well—a topic for a longer post I have saved for the off-season—but at this point in time, I doubt the NHL would be willing to commit that same money for the women’s program.

So then who does pay for? Does everyone chip in a little extra out with their USA Hockey fees? Just female registrants? I imagine both of those options would have extremely strong opposition against, but somebody would have to pay for it.

2. Who do they play?

Part of the reason the NTDP works is that they’re able to find suitable competition for a full schedule. The U18s play a little above their level with half a schedule of college games, and a little below their level with half a schedule of junior games. The U17s play a little above their level with a full junior schedule.

A potential women’s U18 team would probably be competitive against college programs, but couldn’t make a full schedule out of that, especially towards the end of the year. They’d blow out top AAA and high school programs, especially if those programs were losing their elite players.

A U17 team is even trickier. They’d probably be over-matched by most college programs, but likely still a step ahead of most AAA or HS programs. There’s also no international event like the World U17 Challenge on the boys side.

3. Is it really the best thing for women’s hockey development?

I understand the temptation to compare USA Hockey on the men’s and women’s side, but the fact is, they’re working under two entirely different sets of circumstances. Most of the solutions the NTDP provides are issues that just don’t exist in women’s hockey.

When the NTDP was created on the men’s side, USA Hockey had fairly decent youth numbers, but after being decades behind some of the major hockey powers, really struggled in terms of elite development, and it showed on the international stage. Since the program’s creation, there is no doubt that the US has improved considerably on the international stage.

Meanwhile, on the women’s side, is it even really possible to improve their performance on the international stage? The US is basically guaranteed gold or silver in every international event they enter, with the difference coming down to a bounce here or there. They don’t need help generating elite talent compared to the rest of the world.

The focus instead, is probably better served by increasing the depth of talent in the women’s game. Would taking the most talented players from around the country off of their respective teams help or hurt the development of those not at the top of the pyramid. There could probably be an argument each way.

I know it would be extremely unpopular in Minnesota Hockey. They’ve long had their issues with the NTDP on the boy’s side taking top players away from local associations, and I imagine the opposition would be much stronger on the girl’s side where Minnesotans make up a much higher proportion of the elite level talent in the US.

The other major benefit of the NTDP on the men’s side is that it provides an outlet for top American-born players to stay and develop in the United States, and preserve college eligibility.

On the women’s side, there’s no worry of players leaving the country to develop with a few exceptions of players choosing Canadian prep schools, and even those players are definitely coming back to play in the NCAA.

4. Is there a different option?

If a program for top-level female athletes wouldn’t work as an exact replica of what there is on the men’s side, could there be a different solution? Perhaps something closer to the model Herb Brooks often advocated for, which was basically an amped up version of USA Hockey’s summer-time player development camps. That has its’ own issues, but could be a step in the right direction.

Is there an option to have the women’s U18 team play more games early in the season against NCAA teams to give them an advantage in January at the U18s? There’d be some difficult logistics there, but I’d be interested in seeing something like that.

I think it’s very fair to say that more could be done in terms of high-end development, but I’m not sure creating something just because they do it on the men’s side is the correct answer.