An inside look at the gender gap in college hockey


Monique Lamoureux-Morando knows there will be a day when she and her son will walk around the Ralph Engelstad Arena concourse at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

Her son will see the display honoring his mom and aunt, Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, as the school’s two greatest women’s hockey players, not to mention two of the greatest athletes — regardless of sport — to play at UND.

They will then have what Lamoureux-Morando knows will be a difficult conversation.

“Someday, my son is going to ask why women don’t play here anymore and I have to explain that,” Lamoureux-Morando said. “I want to give [her children] opportunities. You hope when your daughter grows up, she has a chance to flourish and excel in what she’s passionate about. But you are also aware of the opportunities she does or does not have.”

At some point in the college hockey season, the questions will be asked: Why aren’t there more Division I women’s college hockey programs and for every school that fields a D-I men’s program, why is there not a women’s equivalent?

This season, there are 62 active D-I men’s programs compared to 37 D-I women’s programs. (The highest level of women’s hockey technically is called the National Collegiate division and includes the 37 Division I teams plus five Division II programs.) Syracuse has a Division I women’s team but not a men’s squad.

But of the 62 colleges and universities with a Division I men’s program, 25 do not have a comparable women’s team.

For example, there are contrasts between two of the nation’s most prominent states for the sport in Minnesota and Michigan. Minnesota has an equal number of men’s and women’s squads — six — that offer D-I hockey. Michigan, however, has seven D-I schools that have a men’s program but none of them have a women’s.

Another area of notable difference is what would be considered the western region. There are about 380 student-athletes actively playing D-I women’s hockey who are from west of Wisconsin given one of the regular lines of demarcation — the Mississippi River — cuts through Minnesota.

As expected, many of those D-I women’s hockey players who are from that western region are from Minnesota. Others come from California, Colorado and Texas, where the game continues to grow. There are also players from Canadian provinces such as Alberta and British Columbia.

Yet, the nation’s western-most women’s D-I program is at Bemidji State in Minnesota. Meanwhile, there are men’s programs at Alaska, Alaska-Fairbanks, Air Force, Arizona State, Colorado College, Denver, Nebraska Omaha and North Dakota.

That means Colorado — a state that has the NHL, AHL, three D-I men’s programs and has seen growth in boys and girls youth hockey — does not have a single D-I women’s program.

“My initial reaction is we have a lot of work to do to continue to grow the highest level of hockey on the western side of the country,” said Kristen Wright, who is a USA Hockey manager for player development. “We’ve seen it at the grassroots level in so many areas. Those players are developing and it’s a matter of how long does it take to grow our collegiate programming?”

So why is the current landscape like this and what, if anything, is being done to potentially add D-I women’s programs at colleges or universities where there is already a D-I men’s equivalent?

ESPN reached out to numerous colleges and universities with a men’s hockey program that do not have a women’s equivalent. Colorado College was the only one that made an administrator available to speak on the record about why its institution does not have a women’s program.

CC vice president/athletics director Lesley Irvine said the school is a Division III institution that has an enrollment of 2,100 students. The school competes at the Division I level in two sports: men’s hockey and women’s soccer. Irvine said men’s hockey has been “tremendous at CC and has a history.” The team has won two national titles, has 20 NCAA tournament appearances and has been around since the 1930s.

As for women’s soccer, Irvine said there was a post-Title IX realization in the 1980s that led to CC pushing to have one D-I women’s sport. The school chose soccer, with the program being a member of Conference USA before joining the Mountain West, whose headquarters are located in Colorado Springs and has several teams within driving distance.

One of the challenges CC would face in adding a women’s program is that there are no nearby schools and every game trip would require a flight.

“It is not as simple as institutions deciding they will add [a women’s hockey program] because they have a male equivalent program,” Irvine said. “You go back to the history here, it makes sense why we have those two sports. The other piece for us is we are on a small campus with 2,100 students and a 12 percent admission rate.”

Some of what Irvine laid out is part of the conversation that numerous administrators are having throughout the changing face of collegiate athletics.

While college athletics is a lucrative industry, particularly at the highest levels of football and men’s basketball, it went through a significant shift during the pandemic because of a drop in revenue. There’s a perception that athletic departments sit on piles of cash when many spend what they take in to stay current with the demands of being a competitive D-I program. Schools were examining their approach to athletics before the pandemic intensified those concerns, especially in this era of conference realignment, which has proven critical to some programs surviving, thriving or going extinct.

College hockey has felt this already. Alabama-Huntsville discontinued its men’s program in May 2021, among other sports, because of the financial challenges of the pandemic along with not being a member of a conference.

Robert Morris cut its men’s and women’s programs in May 2021 just months after the school hosted the men’s Frozen Four. In December 2021, the school announced both programs would be reinstated for the 2023-24 season thanks to fundraising efforts.

Alaska Anchorage had its hockey program, along with other sports, cut in September 2020, but the team was reinstated in August 2021 following a grassroots $3 million fundraising campaign in which the NHL’s Seattle Kraken were involved.

The schools that didn’t cut programs were left asking themselves if they could afford them at what they would consider to be a championship level or one that would allow them to remain competitive while also driving revenue.

In January, California lawmaker and former San Diego State basketball player Chris Holden presented a bill that would force schools to shape how they share earnings under what would be known as the College Athlete Protection Act. The bill would force schools that play major collegiate sports to pay their athletes in addition to covering the cost of six-year guaranteed scholarships along with post-college medical expenses.

And while the bill is in California, where there are no D-I collegiate hockey programs, the state was the first to pass a law in 2019 that allowed college athletes to make money from their name, image and likeness, or NIL.

There are considerable costs associated with introducing a new program. Schools would have to fund the hires for coaches and support staff. Then, there are the scholarship costs that come with their own dynamics, including whether scholarships come from a school’s general funds or the athletic departments.

Perhaps the most notable cost? A facility, and figuring out how to pay for it.

“If you are a school and you want to add a sport, if you add lacrosse, you might have to restripe an existing field and that is your facilities challenge,” said College Hockey Inc. executive director Mike Snee. “If you don’t have access to an adequate hockey facility, you have a $75 million nut you have to raise,” referring to the approximate cost to build a 3,000-to-4,000-seat arena.

Accessibility and cost remain long-standing issues when it comes to why the game has not grown compared to other sports.

The natural inclination is that it would be easier for a school with a men’s program to add a women’s team. That’s true, but there would still be facilities challenges. There might be the need to add two more dressing rooms, more office space and expanded strength and conditioning areas to an arena. And that doesn’t take into account other items such as increased maintenance costs and managing ice time.

There is another question to consider when it comes to adding either men’s or women’s college hockey teams.

Is there demand for it?

Irvine said some fans have asked about adding a women’s program. She said it “comes up once in a while” because Colorado College opened the Ed Robson Arena, an on-campus facility, in 2021.

Growing the game is one of the functions of College Hockey Inc. Snee said it does not typically receive a heavy number of calls from colleges and universities about adding a hockey program, which means it’s usually College Hockey Inc. that is calling schools.

Snee said the need to expand hockey is why College Hockey Inc., in conjunction with the NHL and NHLPA, offers prospective schools a feasibility study to assess if they are in a position to add a men’s or women’s program or both.

In total, 11 studies have been completed. Some have included women’s hockey and one explored only a women’s team, Snee said.

There are ongoing feasibility studies with two schools. Both are for women’s hockey only, but Snee couldn’t disclose the schools’ identities for privacy reasons.

“A feasibility study does not mean they are doing it,” Snee said. “But there is legitimacy to it and there is very much legitimacy to both of these. It is important that we grow D-I, D-III and even club women’s hockey. It’s more opportunities for young women to continue playing into early adulthood. It’s also more aspirational opportunities. We need it within women’s hockey for young girls to see women and the opportunities they can aspire to having.”

Morris Kurtz, the former longtime athletic director at St. Cloud State, oversees the feasibility studies. Snee said Kurtz was responsible for helping St. Cloud transition from a D-III men’s program to D-I in 1987 while adding a women’s team in 1998 that became D-I in 2000.

Kurtz also worked with Penn State when it added men’s and women’s hockey teams along with a new facility in 2013.

Snee said the study concentrates on the financial impact of adding hockey. Can schools account for adding scholarships internally? How much would it cost athletics department in terms of coaching and support staff? There is also a conference assessment to determine if a team has realistic options to join a league, which helps make the endeavor more feasible.

Wright said there are ACHA programs — also known as club hockey teams — in the western region that continue to grow, which was a catalyst for how Arizona State transitioned to D-I. There are several women’s club teams in the west, such as Air Force, ASU, the University of Colorado, Colorado State, Denver, Montana State, the University of Utah and the University of Wyoming.

“Arizona State exists on the men’s side because there was someone who was really passionate and had a really robust club program,” Wright said. “At the end of the day, there is a dollar component to creating college hockey programs. But how do we convince everyone it’s not the chicken or the egg? The visibility is going to be there. People do watch it. If it exists, they are going to go.”

To Wright’s point, the number of girls who might play college hockey are there and the numbers of them continue to grow in the western region.

In 2021-22, USA Hockey reported there were 87,971 women registered hockey players across all ages.

More than 31,000 of those registered players west of the Mississippi are between the ages of 11 and 18. That figure does not include Minnesota. There are eight states with more than 1,000 registered girls in that age range, with the largest number in California (7,282), Colorado (5,800) and Texas (3,985).

Only two of those states — Alaska and California — fielded a girls high school program during the 2021-22 academic year, per the National Federation of State High School Associations. Alaska had 24 programs while California had one.

It’s a stark contrast to Minnesota. The NFHS reports Minnesota had 240 high school girls programs and 3,232 girls who participated in high school hockey during the 2021-22 season.

Of Division I women’s hockey players, 57% who are from west of Wisconsin are from Minnesota. And while that’s not a big surprise, it does show there is growth in other western provinces and states.

“I think if you are in the hockey world, you know that it is growing in these hot pockets like Vegas, which saw its youth programs explode when they got an [NHL] team,” Lamoureux-Davidson said. “It’s the same in Arizona and California. It is growing so fast. Since I played, which feels like so long ago, it’s crazy how fast the sport has grown, specifically on the girls’ side. The skill and speed the girls are growing up playing is in a different ballpark.”

Long Island University women’s hockey coach Kelly Nash grew up in California and played at the University of Wisconsin. She played six professional seasons before she got into coaching and was hired by LIU in June 2022. Nash has 12 players on the LIU roster who are from the West, including Alaska, British Columbia, Colorado, Manitoba and Idaho.

Nash said the options to play hockey were limited when she was growing up. She did not start playing until she was 12. Nash initially played with boys, then found out about an all-girls team that required a trip of nearly 90 miles from San Diego to Huntington Beach. It was around that time when she found out about women’s college hockey.

Getting recruited meant those western club teams would have to travel to tournaments in Minnesota or somewhere further east to be seen.

“Now there is something every single weekend we could be at,” Nash said. “Whether it is a big tournament, a U-16 jamboree. There are players from the Midwest, West Coast, Europe and Canada. When it comes to the U.S. and recruiting on the West Coast, that is still probably the place people go the least. I don’t think there are as many events held out there.”

United States national team goaltender and two-time Olympic medalist Nicole Hensley grew up in Colorado, where hockey has carved a place. But there were certain realities Hensley faced playing the sport when she was young.

Hensley and her family did not know there was a girls’ association in Colorado until after she started playing. She wanted to keep playing, but realized it was likely she would have to play somewhere in Minnesota or on the East Coast.

Hensley grew up going to both Colorado Avalanche and Denver University games. It allowed her to receive more exposure to the sport. There was a time when Hensley had dreams of playing in the NHL, but that was before she understood the path available for women in hockey.

She played at Lindenwood University right after the St. Charles, Missouri, school transitioned from playing club hockey in the ACHA to becoming a D-I program. Hensley was at Lindenwood for four years prior to playing professionally and representing Team USA.

“Now that I’ve been able to go back to Colorado and kind of have my own hand in growing the game in that aspect, I look at the programs that are out there, like Air Force, Colorado College and Denver,” Hensley said. “They’re all premier Division I programs. I just think it would be a real opportunity for those girls programs to flourish in those environments where hockey is already a big deal at those schools.”


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