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Women’s Hockey Community Pushes for Expanded Tourney Field

NCAA HOCKEY: MAR 19 Women’s - Division I Championship - Wisconsin v Clarkson Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A number of member’s of the women’s hockey community tweeted out a graphic in a coordinated campaign on Thursday morning calling on the NCAA increase to increase the women’s NCAA tournament field from eight teams to 12 teams.

The graphic comes a week after an NCAA-commissioned report documented the vast disparity in funding and investment between the men’s and women’s ice hockey tournaments.

The calls to increase the size of the NCAA Tournament field are not new, however. A plan was submitted last summer to increase the number of teams selected to participate, although plans for voting on it were temporarily put on hold over the summer after Robert Morris dropped their hockey program, leaving College Hockey America with just five teams and on a two-year grace period before the conference loses its’ automatic bid.

The argument against expansion was probably best summed up by Arlan Marttila of USCHO earlier this fall:

Having a larger field is a positive if those teams are capable of doing something once they get into the field. What would the expectation be for the ninth team and beyond? Not much. It is like trying to pick the top 10 for the weekly rankings. At a certain point, one votes for teams because there has to be 10 of them, not because those last couple of teams have really made a deserving case.

While likely true, at least in the short-term, expanding the tournament field is probably something that will need to happen eventually and there’s no real major downside to doing it now. The gap between the small handful of major contenders and the rest of women’s college hockey is still significant, but does seem to slowly be closing.

More at-large tournament spots also shaves off some of the rough edges of using the Pairwise to select the NCAA Tournament. With the current set-up, it is extremely difficult to get three teams from one conference, and almost impossible to get four teams from the same conference into the tournament, even if, using this year as an example, one conference has arguably the four best teams in the country. And looking farther down the road, if St. Thomas is able to build their program to the level many think they will be able to, it could tilt the balance of conferences even more.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. The key part will likely be if Robert Morris is able to bring their program back, or a new team takes their spot in the next two years to keep the CHA’s automatic bid. That, combined with the NEWHA conference set to recieve an autobid in 2023, would bring the sport up to five automatic bids and necessitate an expansion. If they stay at the status quo of four automatic bids, one would think it would be easier to remain at four.

But ultimately, the hope is that the recent report on gender inequity, or lack thereof, between the men’s and women’s tournaments pushes the NCAA into investing more in the women’s tournament. An expansion of the tournament would be one way to start quickly balancing those scales.