ZURICH – In men’s hockey, playing in college is only one of several options for becoming a world-class player. In women’s hockey, however, the NCAA offers unparalleled conditions to become a superstar.
The NCAA Division I is the foundation behind the success of the U.S. women’s national hockey team. The league even succeeds in luring Canadian players away from Canadian Interuniversity Sport, the NCAA’s equivalent up north.
Nowadays, more and more European players who go to North America are finding themselves in a paradise for female hockey players, while Division I recruiters are finding themselves as a demander for talent.
But why is the NCAA so good at recruiting players? And why is it considered a top development source for female hockey players?
The key is “Title IX”. It’s a U.S. law that forbids discrimination against women in study financed by the federal government. For any sport in a university it means that men and women shall receive the same funding in their sport and the same conditions – something many women’s hockey teams outside the NCAA can only dream of.
Since universities compete at a high level in men’s hockey, they need to do the same in women’s hockey. Female players don’t have to practise late at night like in many other rinks they share with men’s hockey, juniors and other sports. They are given the same practice conditions and ice time as their male counterparts. And because competition is intense, colleges try to expand the pool of recruits by reaching out to other hockey countries.
Not surprisingly, NCAA women’s hockey is still dominated by Americans. But since women’s hockey began to grow internationally in the ‘90s with the start of the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship and the first-ever Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament in Nagano 1998, more and more Canadians went south the border, followed by the Europeans.
Checking the rosters of the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s Championship program, you can find many players from all top-division national teams coming from an NCAA team: Americans, Canadians, Finns, Germans, Russians, Slovaks, Swedes and Swiss. If you go down to lower divisions, you will also find players from the Czech Republic, Denmark and Norway who left their native countries to study and play in the U.S.
The University of Minnesota-Duluth, whose team is guided by former Team Canada head coach Shannon Miller, was the first college team to recruit international players in higher numbers. Their success story has been paralleled by the University of North Dakota.
“Over the growth of the last ten years it’s been instrumental to prepare players for the international game. That’s something our program looks at too. We’re interested in players who try to represent their countries,” said Brian Idalski, the head coach of the University of North Dakota’s women’s hockey team.
The integration of players from other countries is a positive challenge for him.
“Diversity is very important at a university,” said Idalski, who previously coached in men’s college and minor league teams. “We’re becoming more and more a small world with global connections. It’s part of the educational process to learn from other people.”
With players not only from the U.S., but also from Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway and Sweden, the results have also changed on the ice.
“When I took the team over we had zero wins in conference play,” he said. “We wouldn’t be doing as well without the European players.”
Now the team that competes in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, one of four conferences in NCAA Division I women’s hockey, is on a streak of seven wins in the last four weeks.
Behind the Lamoureux twins, Finland’s Michelle Karvinen and Dane Josefine Jakobsen are the most successful scorers for North Dakota, and Norwegian Jorid Dagfinrud has been a fixture in the net with a 6-2 record and a 92.1 save percentage.
The conditions are great for the players. Their home arena is the state-of-the-art Ralph Engelstad Arena that was the main venue for the 2005 IIHF World Junior Championship.
“I would think more players will come in the future,” Idalski said. “One of the problems is educating the players at a young age so they get set up for the opportunity. And it’s also more paperwork for us to do. We’re hopeful that rules will change and we are allowed to have contact with players earlier.”
While Idalski is used to a more physical and aggressive style of play coming from men’s hockey and calls women’s hockey truly a ‘skills game’, he found the perfect co-worker for his staff in Peter Elander from Sweden. Elander’s role has been crucial for finding the right candidates in Europe, even in the lower divisions.
“After the success Duluth was having with Swedish players and the Detroit Red Wings in the NHL, we saw that they’re something doing development-wise we’re not doing,” Idalski said. “Those players think the game a little bit better than what we did in North America generally speaking. Peter and me became good friends and we’re lucky enough to make it happen.”
Elander has been running international women’s hockey camps for 15 years and he coached the Swedish women’s national team for nine years. He was the bench boss when Sweden won Olympic silver in Turin 2006 after eliminating the U.S. in a shootout in the semi-final – the biggest success of a European team – and led the Swedes to two bronze medals in the 2005 and 2007 World Championships.
“When I had the offer to go to university coaching after Vancouver 2010, it was a good decision,” said the University of North Dakota women’s hockey team’s associate coach. “They have more resources than any national team program expect Canada and the U.S.
“It’s been a very good experience. We try to have an international team. We have the Lamoureux sisters as hometown girls and players from the U.S., Canada and Europe. We’re the Real Madrid of college hockey.”
As a state school he has women not only of different nationalities, but also of different educational directions on his team – future doctors, teachers and engineers.
However, recruiting European players is not that easy. There are many hiccups on the way, Elander said. The school systems are different. There can be language and educational barriers.
“You need some personal inside in the European national teams,” Elander said, and he’s not the only one recruiting overseas.
“Also Duluth is recruiting many European players. The NCAA is the NHL of women’s hockey. Players from the NCAA are usually the best players when they go to their national teams. The more players we can get into the college system with the level of games, coaching and practices, the better it is for the national teams.
“And we think we also benefit from an international atmosphere and we’re proud when our girls go and represent their countries. European players have some technical skills North American players don’t have. European players have really good hands. They have soft hands and are very good passers while North American players shoot the puck better.”
For Elander, Finland and Sweden are still the steadiest producers of really good players in Europe.
“But for example at the last U18 tournament, the Russian team was as good as the Swedish team and also in Germany there’s a lot of talent. But you need to work out the same way U.S. or Canadian players do,” he said. “I think the IIHF’s Ambassador and Mentor Program will help to come there.”
Elander raves about NCAA women’s hockey when comparing it to the situation in Europe. Behind the ice, four full-time staff and five volunteers take care of the team. Knowing how the background for female players elsewhere, he is proud to say that female hockey players are not treated as secondary hockey players in his university “even if the men have much bigger crowds”.
And he knows that this is not completely self-evident, since the women’s team is dependent of the success of the men’s hockey program. The Title IX law correlates the two programs.
“The proportion of male and female athletes should mirror the proportion of students,” Elander explains the consequences of the law. “The men’s team sells 12,000 tickets, the women’s 1,500. So we’re depending on big programs in other sports.”
One of the most famous European NCAA alumni is Florence Schelling. The Swiss was named Best Goalkeeper of the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in the U.S. after leading her team to the first-ever bronze medal.
Her career path is typical for many young European women in hockey who try to make their best out of their talent. In Europe they play with male junior teams as long as they can before switching to women’s-only leagues.
In her native Switzerland these opportunities are limited in the late teenage stage for skaters due to the physical play, but as a goalkeeper she was allowed to play in the top men’s U20 league with the ZSC Lions Zurich organization. She even had the opportunity to practice with the farm team from the second-tier men’s senior league.
In 2008 Schelling left Switzerland for the Northeastern University in Boston.
“I knew I wasn’t able to develop any further in Switzerland and I wanted to study. I was lucky to get the opportunity to present my skills at the Women’s World Championships. That’s why I got several offers from American universities,” Schelling remembered.
She has been able to replicate the same success she has had with the Swiss national team, earning several awards. Last season she was even among the three finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award for the best player in U.S. college hockey.
Meanwhile she finished her four years with NCAA hockey and is concluding her study with a traineeship in Montreal – where her boyfriend Yannick Weber would normally be playing for the Canadiens – to receive her business administration degree.
“Both from the hockey and the educational side I developed a lot in the U.S.,” said Schelling. “I had optimal requirements to improve day by day in hockey and to study further. I learned to be independent, to master another language and to learn a different culture. I had to be super disciplined to juggle hockey and homework. It wasn’t very easy, but it made me stronger and steadier.”
Schelling said the main reason she opted for the Northeastern University was the educational part, not the hockey part. “That’s why I got extra work as a goalkeeper sometimes,” she added with a smile.
“To get a scholarship as an athlete is incredible. You really get spoiled at the university, also with the facilities and the clothes you get,” said Schelling, whose brother plays for the ZSC Lions Zurich in the National League A. “Luckily I knew early that this opportunity could become true and it had always been my goal. It was incredible for me since going to study in the U.S. without a scholarship is very expensive.”
“I’m happy I decided that way and I can recommend it to anybody to make this experience.”
While working in Montreal, Schelling still has the opportunity to play hockey after her college career, although the path has more obstacles than she was used to in the past.
The number-one choice in non-college female hockey when it comes to the level of play is the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. The league includes two teams from the Toronto area, one from Calgary, one from Montreal and one in the U.S., from Boston.
Schelling was drafted by the Montreal Stars, but her hope to play in the city she’s working became void after the pre-season camp when the team management decided to transfer her to the Brampton Hockey Club where she currently plays since the Stars’ team management opted to go with goalkeepers from its own province.
However, in Elander’s view there is still a lot to do to give NCAA alumni better opportunities to play the game at a high level apart from the national team competitions.
“The weak part is the time after you finish off the university career,” he said. “In the CWHL they practice just twice a week. There are many good players. A league in North America must do it for real with practices every day like we do at the university.”
For now NCAA women’s hockey remains a haven for female hockey players. It may just be for a period of four years, but one that could be the most important for the players’ future lives on and off the ice.
Part 1: College hockey – the secret’s out
Part 2: Sweden’s Viktor Stålberg: “College was my only real option”
Part 3: Coach Peter Elander: “It’s the NHL of women’s hockey”
– end of the series