ZURICH – For men who aspire to play in the NHL, the road is so very well mapped out it’s impossible to get lost. No matter what country you live in, it’s all pretty standard fare, well paved. You play in house league, move up to a rep team, play in a junior league, get drafted, play in the minors, play in the NHL.
For women, there is no well-paved road. It’s a donkey path and bramble bush full of potholes and obstacles. The one sure road is NCAA hockey. It’s only for four years, but for most players those four years come at a critical time of personal maturation and development. Look on any current NCAA roster and you’ll not only see the finest young Americans but many top Canadians and now some of the best Europeans.
For USA Hockey’s executive director, Dave Ogrean, this is all good news. The ever expanding NCAA profile is good for American women, and it’s good for the game at large. “In the last year, since Vancouver, there’s been a lot of talk with all countries, and especially in Europe, about what they can do to improve women’s hockey globally, especially for teams five through ten. I think a lot of it has been done. There’s a lot of technical expertise in Canada and the U.S. that’s being shared. And a lot of it has been happening in the college system in the United States because the NCAA programs are becoming more and more international. There’s really nothing like it anywhere else in the world.”
Ogrean expanded: “Obviously, there are more Americans than anyone else in NCAA, but there have been a lot of Canadians in the last 25 years in college programs, more now than ever. There are more Division I scholarship programs today than ever before, a significant increase since Nagano 1998 when women’s hockey was introduced as a medal sport. And in the last ten years, we’ve seen more players from outside North America showing up on women’s rosters.”
Nowhere has this been more evident than at University of Minnesota-Duluth where Shannon Miller coaches. The former head of Canada’s program, she has built a hugely successful women’s program at UMD, and this year she boasts players from five countries – U.S. and Canada, of course, as well as Finland, Sweden, and Germany.
“Shannon has been the primary champion of that,” Ogrean suggested. “In fact, in their arena, she had a plaque from post-Turin that had all of the players participating in that Olympic tournament from UMD and there were six or seven countries on that list. No one has scouted other countries and given players from outside North America a chance more than Shannon. She’s done more recruiting and has more contacts in Europe and is a pioneer in the way some NHL teams 20 or 30 years ago tilled the soil in Eastern Bloc countries before everyone else got there.”
In general, what is most impressive is the list of goalies from around the world who are in NCAA programs right now. Incredibly, five of the eight countries here in Switzerland for 2011 WW have their best goalie in U.S. college, starting with American Molly Schaus at Boston College. As well, Finland’s Noora Räty and Sweden’s Kim Martin are with Miller at UMD; Switzerland’s Florence Schelling, the main reason the team has advanced to the quarter-finals, is at Northeastern; and, Slovak sensation Zuzana Tomcikova, who just might single-handedly keep the team from being relegated, is at Bemidji State University.
Noted Ogrean: “These goalies all have developed significantly through the college system. It can’t take sole credit, but they have come through that program. I think the American college system has done more than any other single thing, outside of adding the sport to the Olympic program, to popularize women’s hockey and provide opportunities for women around the world.”
A significant reason for the increased importance of the NCAA is something called Title 9. The result of a legal battle, it demands equality in sport, something Ogrean sees as being part of the development of the women’s game. “Institutions that provide any type of government funding have to provide equality of opportunity for men and women in athletics based upon the ratio of students,” he explained. “That has helped as a catalyst. There are quite a few schools that didn’t have women’s hockey 15 years ago but had men’s hockey, and now have women’s hockey. In 1990, I don’t know if there were 20 varsity programs in the States. Today, there has to be a couple of times that number. There are more positions every year for women to apply for scholarship situations.”
While the recruiting of Europeans for NCAA should be applauded and encouraged, European federations shouldn’t sit back and let the NCAA do all the work. That won’t and can’t happen. “If the game is going to improve across the board,” Ogrean explained, “Europeans can’t count on NCAA to do everything for them. NCAA programs will improve European players, but Americans and Canadians are going to make up 95% of the rosters anyway. There has to be more development in Europe.”
That development likely has to take place outside the academic arena, though, since the NCAA model, and its Canadian counterpart, are unique.
“The other thing for Europeans to consider is that they can go and play in Canadian universities after using up their NCAA eligibility. They can go to grad school and add another couple of years to their career that way. Cammi Granato did that in Montreal. But I don’t think there’s anything in Europe like NCAA or Canadian university where players can go for several years and get an education and play a high level of hockey.”
Therein lies one of many dilemmas for women to overcome on the bumpy and dusty road to the Olympics.