Past, present, future left reeling after North Dakota women's hockey program gets cut

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Thursday April 6th, 2017

On March 30 at 12:30 p.m. CT, Lauren Hennessey touched down in Grand Forks, North Dakota, a partial athletic scholarship in hand, commitment papers signed and delivered some three weeks earlier. She was excited, despite the long plane ride and 5:30 a.m. ET departure, prepared to visit the campus she would soon call home.

Hennessey has plans to earn a nursing degree while playing on a top-ten ranked D-I hockey team. Her plans—and mood—came crashing down within hours of her arrival.

The women’s athletic staff had taken the Hennesseys around the campus and its facilities, including the breathtaking Ralph Engelstad Arena, before finally meeting the women’s ice hockey coaching staff, where they learned the two-hour tour—and more so, their trek across the country—had all been for naught. In that meeting with the coaches, Hennessey learned of the University’s decision to axe the women’s hockey program along with the men’s and women’s swimming team.

“It is mentally exhausting," Hennessey told SI.com. “I am not sure when it will wear off.”

She couldn’t help but use the terms “shocked” and “surreal” to describe the past 12 hours. 

“Honestly, it is really heartbreaking to be so excited to finally have accomplished one of the biggest dreams I have ever set for myself by playing Division I hockey and within a second, having it be taken away,” Hennessey said.

There were reportedly no alternatives, such as club teams, offered, either.

So now Hennessey is back to being an NCAA free agent, months after most schools finalized their rosters for her class. A standout goalie from Lynnfield High School (Mass.), Hennessey played on the highly-ranked East Coast Wizards and has been Lynnfield’s varsity starter for two seasons. She has numerous First Team All-State and All-Conference awards to her credit as well as her team’s Most Valuable Player award.

Despite her accomplishments, Hennessey now faces an uphill battle. 

As a senior, she’s out of options at the Division I level since all of those programs have either committed a goalie from this class or next year’s. Essentially, the decision by North Dakota to nix its women’s hockey program is most likely going to cost Hennessey a shot at playing at college hockey’s highest level.

“My dream of playing Division I hockey is slim to none,” Hennessey said.

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Unlike boys hockey, there is no option to play in a junior league for a season before college. Her most likely choices for the time being are Division III schools in the New England area, which cannot offer athletic scholarships, and likely do not offer a path to the national team. 

“My family is very shocked and upset as getting committed to this school was so exciting and how it's just heartbreaking to not know what I'm going to do next year,” said Hennessey.

Monique Lamoureux-Morando, a volunteer assistant coach with the University team, found out around the same time as Hennessey. She, however, was hundreds of miles away at training camp for the IIHF Women’s World Championships in Plymouth, Michigan as a part of the U.S. women’s national team. Lamoureux-Morando, however, had to learn the news secondhand from reports circulating on Twitter.

In addition to working at the University, Lamoureux-Morando is a 2013 graduate of the program. She went on to win two Olympic medals alongside her twin Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, also a team alumna and coach at the school. The program has produced 12 Olympians in only 15 years, including eight who played in the Sochi Games; the Fighting Hawks came into the season ranked sixth in national polls. 

“To be honest, it’s hard to put into words how disappointing it is,” Lamoureux-Morando told SI.com. “People’s livelihoods and hockey careers are at stake over this and for it to be handled the way that it was is just, in my mind, completely unacceptable. There was a complete lack of respect for the staff and the players. It’s really unfortunate how it was handled, every single aspect.”

Cuts to the athletic department have made things tense around the University of North Dakota for the past two seasons. State budgetary concerns necessitated the chopping of men’s baseball and men’s golf in 2015; the latter was given a reprieve if it managed to fundraise a certain amount by June of 2018. 

After what University of North Dakota’s athletics director Brian Faison called “a very lengthy review process” by the Intercollegiate Athletic Committee during the fall of 2016, which featured players and coaches from seven “at-risk” teams—women’s hockey not among them—asked to present to a budget committee on why their sport should not be cut, the decision was made to keep and fund its remaining sports, with suggestions made on how to increase revenue. Those suggestions included everything from increasing ticket prices to renegotiating facility contracts. 

Faison characterized the suggestions as less than fruitful in making up the difference once the most recent budget was handed down by the state in January.

Newly-appointed University president Mark Kennedy did not offer the opportunity to fundraise the difference to men’s or women’s swimming and diving, or women’s hockey, unlike men’s golf. 

“They need an endowment that’s fully capitalized by June of 2018 at $4.1 million and I think it’s going to be very difficult for them to make that,” Faison said of the men’s golf fundraising efforts. “The question is, do you try and offer that up to other sports? You’d have to do it for men’s and women’s swimming and diving, too, you can’t just do that for other sports. And if you do, what’s that going to be? Clearly, you’re talking about in both cases, some kind of situation that has to be an endowment in the $100 million-plus range.”

January of 2017 saw a leaner budget put out by Doug Burgum, the newly-elected governor of North Dakota, which called for further cuts to the University’s finances. With a move to the Summit League requiring seven sports to be funded at approximately 85 percent of the NCAA limit and Kennedy pressuring the athletics department for greater funding for the four recent conference championship teams of volleyball, football and men’s and women’s basketball, Faison told SI.com the IAC could find no other way to move the department forward that coincided with Kennedy’s vision. 

Although the women’s hockey team—and the athletic department as a whole—was aware cuts were being made to the department, program coaches and staff were blindsided by the president’s decision to slash women’s hockey, the women’s head coach Brian Idalski told SI.com.

“I knew options were being discussed and considered but leading up to it there was no indication we were being cut,” Idalski said. “Obviously, you're a little concerned [when you know budget cuts are coming] and you're wondering what direction but everything kept going. I booked all my recruit travel for the month of April, I booked [recruit] visits. I had budget meetings with university officials the day before were were cut; I had a meeting with the AD talking about assistant coach contracts the week before. There really was no inkling that this was coming.”

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That decision—and a lack of communication—between the President’s office and the athletic department spells disaster for many of the athletes on the women’s hockey team. While the University has promised to honor the athletic scholarships of players rostered on now-defunct teams, a number of these players have goals of playing on their national teams; to stop playing hockey now would mean an end to those dreams.

Players interested in transferring face an uphill battle. Rosters are already set around the conference the University belongs to, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, as well as through the rest of the NCAA. Like Hennessey and the rest of incoming class, current players have no guarantee they’ll find a spot on another roster, and even if they do, that there will be financial aid available for them. While some coaches have already called and inquired about certain players’ interest in transferring the transition will not be without losses for the players concerned.

“No matter what sport it is, the more you push it back in the spring the harder it is for those kids [enrolled in the program] to find a place to play,” said Lamoureux-Morando. “Especially for hockey, it’s so late in the game as far as being able to find a scholarship and find a place to transfer that has room for another player. I just think it’s irresponsible on UND’s part. It’s like they didn’t want to deal with it and they just kept pushing it under the rug, pushing it under the rug until finally they had to deal with it.”

Most North Dakota players were on the ice during a skills session when the news broke on social media that the program had been cancelled; several others were at Women’s Worlds in Plymouth, Michigan with their national teams, preparing for the tournament.

“Your heart goes out to every single one of those players,” said Lamoureux-Morando. “I can only imagine how they feel. You have to perform in a world championship but they must be worried about what they’re going to do next year and how their life is going to change. You look at it from all aspects, how are these players supposed to perform now? They have no idea what’s going to come at them in the next couple of weeks. It’s heartbreaking.”

The University of North Dakota also boasts multiple European players on educational visas; one, Dorettya Medgyes, a member of the Hungarian National team, stood in the student union wearing her hockey jersey and a homemade sign reading simply, “I need a hug.” The program cut, Medgyes and other students in her situation face an uncertain future; they may not find schools in the U.S. willing to sponsor them, effectively leaving them choosing between an education and growing the sport for their home country. 

“We’ve done everything we can to address their ability to transfer immediately and will continue to do that,” Faison said. “We’ll see what happens. The timing’s not great. It never is, no matter when you do it but we’ll do everything we can to help out with that. It’s a tough situation, it’s no question.”

Although it would benefit the University if players chose simply to transfer to new programs, the women on the Fighting Hawks are refusing to take the termination of their program lying down. After a team meeting over the weekend where Idalski and his staff spoke with students about their options as student-athletes, the students came to a decision: they wanted to fight for their program.

“Really, they started the push of, what can we do, and what does that look like,” said Idalski. “I give a lot of credit to them as a group. No one else has signed, no one else has committed to another institution. They wanted to save this. 

“I'm not even sure how to feel about that because...I don't think I would have been the same,” he added, his voice catching. 

This week, players took to social media to express dismay, solidarity and determination to fight the decision. 

“Completely expected,” Faison told SI.com. “I understand that, and that’s why they’re competitive student athletes. They’re going to fight and we understand that.”

“I’m still in shock and disbelief; it doesn’t seem real,” senior forward Kayla Gardner told SI.com. “It’s hard to wrap my head around all of it, and know how to go about it all.”

Gardner also found out via social media that the program had been cancelled; she was spending the weekend in Ontario when the news broke. Although she’s graduating in only a few weeks, she still worries for her teammates who may be unable to find a program to play in. 

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Gardner, her teammates and coaches are gearing up for battle, aiming for reinstatement of their program; their posts on social media are just the tip of the iceberg. Players have begun meeting with lawyers to discuss Title IX lawsuit requirements while Idalski has set up meetings with Kennedy and Faison to find out what goals need to be met in order to reinstate the program.

“We understand there's a budget cut,” said Idalski. “We empathize wholeheartedly and know that things are tough all over campus. We're just looking for a way to save the program, because once it goes away, it's not coming back. Women's hockey is still a relatively young in comparison to a lot of other sports and still growing. If a school like North Dakota can eliminate a sport like women's hockey and its rich tradition, and what that means within the community, what's stopping other institutions?"

The cuts leave just 35 women's Division I hockey programs, and only seven in the WCHA.

“We just want to try to sit at the table and come to some agreement as to what that would look like,” said Idalski. “They threw out [that it would take] $32 million to endow our program; that's unrealistic and that's not in good faith. Realistically, would it take us funding it for 2, 3 years at $1.3 million until the economy turns? Is that a big mountain, yes. Is it unrealistic...people have told me they think that's doable.”

Idalski compared the loss of the program he’s been with and crafted for the past decade to the loss of a loved one, or family member. 

“You hit those stages of grief you go through; some can trigger it out of the blue,” Idalski said.  “There are some days you wake up and you're in denial. Can it really be true? Did we really go through that? 

“Obviously going to take some kind of time for players and staff to work through it,” he added. “And that's why the pushback is important. Even if they give us a number [to fundraise]—maybe $5 million—and we can't get there, I think that just helps [the players] move on. We've fought the fight. Done all we could. It didn't work out. That just helps them move on to the next stage. I really feel that they'd feel pretty empty if they didn't do all they could [to save the program].”

In the grand scheme of things, this announcement could not have come at a worse time for women’s hockey.

Lamoureux-Morando and the rest of the U.S. women’s national team are fresh off a win for women’s hockey. She and her teammates successfully negotiated a salary and important benefits from USA Hockey, such as a per diem equal to that of the men’s and a committee dedicated to improving youth development for the women’s side. This came after 16 months of negotiating and a threatened boycott of Women’s Worlds.

To go from the high of victory Tuesday to their program and livelihood being cut the following afternoon was devastating.

“It’s kind of like getting punched in the stomach,” said Lamoureux-Morando. “It’s like one step forward, five steps back in a way. 

“In that aspect, it’s kind of tough to swallow,” she continued. ““I think it’s a blow to the women’s hockey community. It’s a step back, especially in the region UND’s located in.

Lamoureux-Morando stated the program cut went against what she and her U.S. teammates had fought so hard for during 15 long months. By cutting one of the top-tier Division I teams in the NCAA, even fewer girls will have the opportunity to play their way onto the national team or into a professional league.

Beyond the immediate impact on North Dakota, Kennedy’s edict may also affect the institution’s international profile. Women’s hockey is on the rise; the viewership for the women’s gold-medal game at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games drew 4.9 million viewers in the U.S., up 96 percent what it drew only four years before. With the NHL prohibiting its players from joining the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Games and four of the University’s student-athletes projected to be on their national team rosters during said Games, the potential lost publicity for the University is difficult to calculate.

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“To have UND mentioned, over and over and over on national TV like that...” Idalski trailed off. “I don't know if you can put a price tag on that, to have that university in that light.”

Lamoureux-Morando and her U.S. women’s national team teammates sent a letter to Kennedy that was published in the Grand Forks Herald, iterating their displeasure with the move, something echoed by North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp.

Heitkamp, one of the 15 senators to sign a letter to USA Hockey pushing for an equitable deal for the national team, originally brought the matter to her fellow senators’ attention. 

“After such great news for women's hockey, UND women's hockey received a tough blow,” Heitkamp said in a statement provided to SI.com. “It’s an unfortunate step for all female athletes, and especially those from a program that has created some world class players.”

Players’ next step to prevent the termination of the women’s ice hockey program may be a Title IX lawsuit.

Women’s hockey at the University of North Dakota began in 2002; the men’s program has been around since 1929. Women’s programs frequently face bigger challenges in the name of budget cutting as they typically have been on the books for a shorter period of time and so require more promotional dollars and have a smaller market presence. This means women’s programs are more vulnerable to cuts despite calls for –– and legislation in favor of –– gender equity. 

Three-time Olympic gold medalist Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a lawyer and CEO of ChampionWomen, an organization that advocates for women and girls in sports with a particular focus on Title IX, gave SI.com an impartial perspective on potential Title IX compliance pitfalls for the University. 

“In order to have a lawsuit proceed they have to file a temporary restraining order (TRO), that will keep them from cutting the women’s ice hockey team,” she said. 

“The court looks at the balance of equity and typically grants those as long as the plaintiff hasn’t waited too long, as long as there’s not undue hardship for the school,” she said.  

As such, if the coach has moved, contracted with another program, the school has sold player equipment or something similar, that makes it difficult for a judge to rule in favor of the athletes. However, Hogshead-Makar informed SI.com, if athletes move quickly with a TRO, the school cannot shut the program down while litigation is proceeding, thus giving the program a temporary stay while a Title IX suit is heard.

An issue that a number of schools run into is proportionality of programs; women’s programs are often fewer, but filled out with more athletes than the men’s side. The aim of Title IX is to ensure equal educational opportunities for women, including one-on-one time with coaches and mentors, meaning that even if the ratio of women students to women student athletes exactly reflects the percentage of women enrolled in the institution, schools can still be found non-compliant if women’s programs are overstuffed compared to the men’s. 

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After comparing online squad sizes with the Equity in Athletics Data Analysis (EADA), Hogshead-Makar found the University’s representative student-athlete population slightly out of whack with the overall population. To whit, 43.4 percent of the athletes are women while 46 percent of the school’s students are women. 

Additionally, Hogshead-Makar noted the women’s teams are slightly larger than average while the men’s teams are slightly smaller than average, resulting in more coaching and one-on-one time for male athletes. 

“To hit strict proportionality the school would have to add 15.75 women athletes, or an average of 22.3 athletes over 13 years,” said Hogshead-Makar.

“The average D-I ice hockey team is [comprised of 24 student-athletes],” Hogshead-Makar said. “UND isn’t in a position to use ‘roster management’ because the men’s teams are already smaller than average, while the women’s teams are larger [than average].”

This is not unusual in women’s college sports. A recent VICE Sports report examined EADA data only to find that many NCAA Division I schools may not be Title IX compliant in awarding athletic scholarships or otherwise, sometimes only simulating compliance by double- or triple-counting women who play multiple sports or by counting men practicing with the women's team as women student-athletes, a charge that was levied at Quinnipiac University in a 2009 Title IX case

University of North Dakota Title IX Compliance Coordinator, Donna Smith, told SI.com she was unsure of where the discrepancy Hogshead-Makar found came from. 

“We’re very careful with our numbers and we take pride in ensuring everything is accurate,” Smith said. “I don’t feel like I can comment on our numbers because they’re still a little bit of a moving target at this point. I am very confident that when we have everything finalized we will be within Title IX compliance. If anything, I believe we will be in favor of women by at least a few [athletes].

“We spent a good amount of time examining our current participation rates and our scholarship rates,” said Smith. “We did engage outside counsel (from the Baker-Donalsen law firm in Atlanta, Ga.) who are experts in Title IX through the athletics department because we wanted to make sure whatever cuts came to the athletics department that we were doing that in the right way, to remain compliant.”

In cutting men’s and women’s swimming as well as women’s hockey, the University cut approximately $3 million from its budget when it was only asked to cut $1.3 million, while adding $700,000 in attendance scholarships over the past two seasons. Per Title IX, attendance scholarships should be divided up equally between men and women athletes.

Both men’s and women’s hockey run approximately $1.9 million per season, according to the EADA. Despite its success with the women’s program, the University chose to cut women’s ice hockey over one such as football, which costs over $4 million annually and has produced few high-impact NFL players.

“They are prioritizing football over a winning women’s hockey team,” Hogshead-Makar said. 

Said analysis also showed discrepancies in recruiting costs between men’s and women’s sports, something that is also supposed to be divided up equally between men’s and women’s athletics, Hogshead-Makar pointed out. 

Many players, current and former, piped up on social media to express their unhappiness with the University’s decision. Lamoureux-Morando was one of them, along with her sister, Lamoureux-Davidson, Team Canada forward Halli Krzyzaniak, NWHL goaltender Katie Fitzgerald and others. 

“I think it’s a very sad day for a lot of alumni and players,” Lamoureux-Morando said. “No matter what sport was cut, the way it was handled and how everything transpired…players deserve more than that, the staff deserves more than that, the alumni deserve more than that. Everybody deserves better than what they got yesterday.” 

While University players like would-be incoming freshman Hennessey now face immense uncertainty, even a possible end to their hockey careers, one thing is certain: the passion these women have for their game will not let the University’s decision pass by unnoticed. 

Kyle Phillippi contributed reporting to this article.

This story has been updated to reflect that the University did speak with the players and coaches before sending out an official press release regarding the program's cancelation.

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