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Northern Michigan Considering Women’s Hockey

Ryan Stieg of the Marquette Mining Journal reported on Thursday that women’s hockey is one of a number of new sports that Northern Michigan is looking at potentially adding in the future. The school will hold a press conference tomorrow afternoon to discuss the situation.

“School considering hockey” has resulted in nothing often enough that it’s not really a newsworthy story anymore, unless it is accompanied by a photo of the Monopoly Man handing the school president one of those giant sacks with a dollar sign on it. Add in the fact that there are multiple other, much cheaper, options also on the list of sports to add, and there are a lot of reason to be skeptical of this ever amounting to anything.

However, there are a couple interesting things in here that makes this an intriguing possibility.

First off, it’s interesting that Kevin Westgarth of the NHL and Mike Snee from College Hockey Inc. were brought in on the process. College Hockey Inc. and the NHL have worked together to bring feasibility studies to schools looking to add men’s hockey in the past. Illinois and Oakland University are the two that have been publicly announced. Both schools floated the possibility of adding women’s hockey as well, though only as one of an array of women’s sports possibilities intended to satisfy Title IX requirements. The article doesn’t specifically say Northern Michigan will be getting money from the NHL through College Hockey Inc., but their reported enthusiasm is at least noteworthy.

Though the state of Michigan has seven men’s Division I ice hockey programs, there has not been a D-1 women’s program in the state since Wayne State folded their program in 2011. One of the issues holding a single school from making the jump is that it would be on a relative island in the women’s hockey landscape with no close travel and no conference to play in.

But that wouldn’t be the case for Northern Michigan. Ever since North Dakota dropped their women’s hockey program in 2017, the WCHA has been sitting at seven members, and been very interested in adding an eighth member to help make scheduling much easier. Northern Michigan is already a league member on the men’s side, and is a decent geographic fit. It’s about a five-hour bus ride to either Madison, WI or Duluth, MN, and another two-ish hours from Duluth to either St. Cloud, Bemidji or the Twin Cities. It would also be the second-closest conference trip of the season for Ohio State. WCHA women’s commissioner Katie Million will be involved in tomorrow’s press conference, along with Westgarth and Snee.

There’s still a long ways away though. As always, finding proper funding will be the big hurdle. In addition to coming up with the money to endow scholarships for the programs, Northern Michigan’s hockey arena, the Berry Events Center, would likely need to undergo major renovations to create adequate space for a new women’s program.

One other potential wildcard in this situation is the discrimination lawsuit that was filed last summer by 11 members of the former North Dakota women’s hockey program. The lawsuit is being headed by Dan Siegel, who served as attorney for Shannon Miller in her successful discrimination suit against Minnesota,

Kirsten Whelan of Victory Press wrote the definitive piece on the lawsuit, which goes into great detail on the legal argument being made in the case.

The biggest argument, it seems, will be made using the ‘Selection of Sports’ sub-section of the law. From Whelan:

The players’ complaint invokes all three subsections, but it’s the assessment criteria under Selection of Sports that are perhaps the most compelling. The policy interpretation states that institutions aren’t inherently required to sponsor the same exact sports for men and women, but that they may be required to sponsor a team under certain conditions, depending on whether the sport is considered contact or non-contact. Ice hockey is, unsurprisingly, a contact sport.

Effective accommodation means that if an institution sponsors a team for members of one sex in a contact sport, it must do so for members of the other sex under the following circumstances:(1) The opportunities for members of the excluded sex have historically been limited; and

(2) There is sufficient interest and ability among the members of the excluded sex to sustain a viable team and a reasonable expectation of intercollegiate competition for that team.

The University of North Dakota sponsors a men’s ice hockey team. The opportunities for women in ice hockey have historically been limited -- while UND’s men’s team was launched in 1929, the women’s team debuted in 2002. At the time of the cut, the University of North Dakota had an entire roster and recruiting class of women who were both interested and able to sustain not just a team, but a nationally-ranked team competing in the WCHA, the toughest women’s hockey conference in the country. It seems clear that the circumstances of this case would, according to these criteria, require UND to sponsor a women’s ice hockey team in order to meet the standard of effective accommodation.

It’s an argument that doesn’t seem to have been tried in court before. Multiple people have now mentioned to me that this is a case administrators are watching closely because of the potential implications not just at North Dakota, but elsewhere.

If the court were to rule that it’s not kosher for a school to offer men’s hockey and then offset the scholarship opportunities with a cheaper non-contact women’s sport, that may change the Title IX equation at some schools.

In the case of Northern Michigan, it would be fairly easy to show sufficient interest and ability in women’s hockey, given the number of AAA youth programs in the state that consistently send players off to D-1 colleges.

So in that regard, Northern Michigan may be out ahead of the curve on this by starting the process of setting up a program now.

I would still put my level of optimism at this happening any time in the near future as pretty low. There are a lot of obstacles to overcome, mostly financial. But it’s cool to see Northern Michigan actively taking strides to make it happen.