Understanding the WCHA powerhouse — Player quotes and memories

The IX: Hockey Friday with The Ice Garden, April 12, 2024

Happy Friday from Angelica Rodriguez at The Ice Garden! NCAA season has come and gone, but we can’t let it pass without acknowledging another year of success for what has become the gold standard for Division I college hockey: the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA). You know it as the home to a host of perennial national championship winners and contenders, most recently Ohio State which capped off a record-setting season with a 1-0 win over defending champion Wisconsin. Minnesota and Minnesota Duluth also boast championship pedigrees — UMD winning for much of the 2000s while Minnesota dominated the 2010s.

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But it’s Wisconsin that holds the most national championships currently, with seven, while Ohio State has been the most recent up-and-comer to take DI by storm — winning two of the last three national titles. In all, the WCHA holds 20 of the 23 national championships awarded in women’s DI college hockey history, and also boasts a slew of Patty Kazmaier winners like Sophie Jaques, Taylor Heise and Kendall Coyne Schofield.

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The WCHA celebrated its 25th birthday this past season and, to celebrate, I wanted to get perspective from both current and former WCHA players and personnel about why this conference — nestled in the heart of the contiguous United States — has been so dominant in college women’s hockey. Below are some key sound bytes from a handful of big names in pro women’s hockey on what their experiences were like and what sets the WCHA apart from the rest of the competition. These have been edited for clarity and brevity. 

I started at North Dakota, and when that program shut down [in 2017], I knew I wanted to stay in the WCHA. It was close to my hometown — I’m from out west — but it was also because of the level of play. Obviously there was the top half of the teams there, but it’s cool to see the progression and the parity of the league. Ohio State came up and really asserted themselves as a top team, and now you have St. Cloud and [Minnesota] Duluth, and it’s really turning into every game, anyone can win, I feel like. 

[Losing North Dakota] was hard for everyone at the time. It was lucky that everyone actually ended up finding a school. When I first heard the news, it took me a few days to process it, but I actually played U18s in Canada [under] Jackie Crum, who was a coach there and at Wisconsin. They believed in me, and they wanted to bring me in to compete for a starting job at Wisconsin. 

Having the opportunity in losing the program at North Dakota, where I was trending to become a starter there, was pretty appealing. It turned into a really great [situation], and I just loved every minute I spent at Wisconsin. 

Kristen Campbell, goaltender for PWHL Toronto, Wisconsin and North Dakota alumna
Toronto goaltender Kristen Campbell (50) makes a save on a New York shot during the first period of the inaugural PWHL ice hockey game at Mattamy Athletic Centre. (Photo Credit | John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

The Midwest is certainly biased, we got good hockey out here and we take pride in that, so number one, I think we’re a really great hockey hotbed. Number two, I think, is the institutions out here were maybe a little bit ahead of the game providing resources and financial backing into Division I sports. That’s not to say the East Coast wasn’t, I just think the WCHA did a good job up front. One example was [the University of Minnesota building] Ridder Arena right away, building a hockey rink specifically for the women’s program. If you look at the big picture, I think we just maybe were ahead of the curve doing that in the Midwest with our institutions that firmly believe if you build it, they will come. Pair that with a lot of great hockey players in the Midwest who, I think, just wanted to stay home and play college hockey here… I think that provides a tremendous product on the ice. 

Then obviously, Ohio State under [head coach] Nadine Muzerall … she can show you that a non-hockey community that is primarily focused on football [can succeed], and she’s doing that from the standpoint that’s the opposite of what I just said, of — there’s a rink, but it’s low capacity, it’s an older rink. She’s doing that without an arms race of facilities behind her. So I think a lot of it also has to do with the people the WCHA has hired, like [Nadine and] Mark Johnson, incredible people like that. People come to the WCHA and know they’ll have a good shot at being on a winning team.

Natalie Darwitz, forward, GM of PWHL Minnesota, Minnesota alumna

Minnesota was actually one of the last teams to have reached out to me. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go so far from home, but when I first went on campus and met the team, and I just saw the culture surrounding the program, it was something I wanted to be a part of. It was something that I had never experienced before. Minnesota has such a long, rich history of successful hockey, and they hold all their players to such a high standard both on and off the ice, and I thought it would be very good for my development. And also the WCHA at that time — and I still believe it but I’m biased — was one of the best conferences that you could play in. It was a great blend of good hockey and just good people behind the scenes. 

I was very blessed to be able to play for [head coach] Brad Frost for four seasons. He’s been there for an extremely long time, and in order to hold that title of head coach of the Gophers, you have to be very good at what you do. I think one of the things that separates Frosty from other coaches is he really cares about his players not just on the ice, but off the ice. He’s very good at making people understand what their role on the team is, and helping them accept that. In order to have any team be successful, there’s going to be players that are in the spotlight, and other players that aren’t really going to get as much opportunity to show up on the scoreboard. But the culture that was set there was one where everyone was united and cared for each other regardless of what their goal was, and I think that culture that Frosty provided was the reason why that program was [and continues to be] so successful.

Amanda Leveille, goaltender for PWHL Minnesota, Minnesota alumna

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When you go to the WCHA, you know you’re going to be playing against the best of the best all the time. [When I went to] Ohio State, I didn’t even expect to win a game against Minnesota or Wisconsin when I first committed there. I think just being able to compete against them for five years, it was really cool to see that battle constantly grow and to get a lot better from … that high competition and that high pace. 

I also think with the WCHA, there’s a lot of big schools that pump a lot of money into athletics. Going to Ohio State, there’s, you know, chartered flights, there’s an insane amount of apparel that you get. A lot of things that are very appealing to younger girls being recruited, [but it] doesn’t sleep on the quality of the education you get and the opportunities you get. Ohio State had an amazing internship program for athletes. I think that the main focus was on, how can we make an athlete’s life better, not only on the ice, but in the classroom and in their individual lives for the future? Those resources really set the WCHA apart. 

Emma Maltais, forward for PWHL Toronto, Ohio State alumna
Canada’s Emma Maltais smiles after Sarah Nurse scores against Switzerland at the Adirondack Bank Center in Utica, NY on Friday, April 5, 2024. (Photo Credit | Daniel DeLoach/Utica Observer-Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK)

I had a fantastic time at Wisconsin. Being able to be recruited by one of the best schools in the nation was obviously such a privilege and an honor, and to be able to go to a school like that was pretty special … It was awesome to play Minnesota and Ohio [State] and North Dakota because it really prepared us as we went on through the postseason and different things like that. 

I think it’s the passion and commitment to hockey that our schools give. I know at Wisconsin while we were there, it was always football, basketball, hockey, and we were always in the limelight as one of the top three sports at the school. The fans were able to show that as well. There were times during my junior and senior year that we had fans outside the arena scalping tickets to our games, because it was such a hot ticket. I think the passion that people have for hockey within the WCHA is something that, while I was being recruited, I didn’t see anywhere else.

Sarah Nurse, forward for PWHL Toronto, Wisconsin alumna

Must-click links

Andrew Podnieks at the IIHF put together an interesting look at teams pulling the goalie when down by one goal — or sometimes even multiple — thus far during Worlds. Pulling the goalie is always one of those things that I find so intriguing, including when and why coaches decide to do it (especially when down by multiple goals or with 4-5 minutes left in regulation… not that Patrick Roy coaches women’s hockey, but I am looking at you, sir). 

PWHL New York has announced a Pride Night game, perhaps the league’s first (correct me if I’m wrong), set for April 20. No comment on the way that date fits in perfectly. 

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If you haven’t been following along with J Gray’s Five Thoughts series on Czechia throughout Worlds, you should catch up. It’s insightful commentary on a very fun, yet still building team in the Czechs, who are aiming for a third consecutive bronze at the very least. 

Also at TIG, if you don’t mind me promoting my own opinion pieces — listen, it’s been a while, okay — I wrote some thoughts down regarding the woefully inadequate coverage by NHL Network during this tournament, even when it comes to the North American teams. It’s obvious the two men the network has employed to do intermission analysis don’t have a clue and to boot, they’re being ridiculously paternalistic with what they do know. As I mentioned on Twitter, I know NHLN can really only name one women’s hockey player at any given time, but if they don’t know how to handle the women’s game, they surely have the means to hire on someone who does. There really is no excuse at this point. 

Karissa Donkin at CBC Sports has had some awesome tidbits regarding Worlds players, including this one about Adela Šapovalivová of Czechia who has been wowing fans and media alike at just 17 years old. 
And in addition to Worlds, USA Hockey held its own Girls & Youth Nationals across 10 different sites on April 7. Check out the full list of winners for this year’s tournament.

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