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U.S. college system responsible for developing world's top women's hockey talent

There's a common thread throughout the eight teams of players at the Women's World Championship, with an overwhelming number of them having connections to an NCAA program.

PLYMOUTH, Mich.—Often lost in the reporting about the United States Women’s National Teams boycott was the players’ demand for USA Hockey to create a comprehensive development program for girls. Preliminary reports say the new agreement will have USAH adding a foundation position that works exclusively with girls developmental teams. 

There is a fully formed men’s development program housed right here at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth. USAH reportedly receives $8 million in funding from the NHL for hockey development, as the program is instrumental in preparing players to play men’s professional hockey. But the NHL does not specify how that money needs to be spent. 

"It's USA Hockey's decision to determine how to allocate and distribute the funding they receive from the NHL," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told USA Today. [LINK]

Just as the women on the national team were looking to secure their own futures, they were also concerned about the future for young players and the future of the women’s national team. If the U.S. wants to remain not just competitive, but dominant, its governing body has to commit to development and it has to start before the players reach the U-18 team. 

Currently, the U.S. is home to the best women’s hockey development program in the world—but it has little to do with USAH. NCAA Division I hockey has emerged as the preeminent place for players to face premier competition, receive top-tier coaching and prepare for the level of international play, all while receiving an education. 

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Of course, a player has to already be world class to be skating in D-I. What the USWNT is looking to have created will work on development from a young age through the U-18s, as opposed to relying on individual school and youth programs. Despite the ongoing growth of women’s and girls hockey in the United States, there are on a few states that produce the majority of the players. 

The international growth of college hockey has been on display at the Women’s Worlds: Of the 184 total women playing in the 2017 World Championships, 82 of them are current, former or future NCAA Division I players. Comparatively, just four women played in the Canadian college system and two played Division III hockey. 

Every member of Team USA and Team Canada with the exception of Shannon Szabados played D-I hockey. At the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, just eight members of Team Canada had played in the NCAA. In contrast, every member of the U.S. squad in Sochi and 14 of the 21 Canadian skaters were current or former NCAA players.

There also 11 Czech players, nine from Finland, six each from Sweden and Germany and five via Switzerland that have either played college hockey or are committed to do so next season. Additionally, there are 26 players across all eight rosters that played collegiately in the 2016-17 season, which ended March 19. 

Of the 98 total goals scored thus far in the tournament, 61 have come from future, current or former NCAA players. Of the 58 goals scored by non-U.S. and Canada teams, 26 came from players with NCAA experience. And those currently playing at the college level—on rosters for the 2016-17 season—have scored 20 goals. 

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Infographic vis Stops & Starts: The Official Publication of the American Hockey Coaches Association, December 2015 Vol. XXIII, No. 2

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Cheryl Pounder, who won gold with Team Canada at the 2002 and 2006 Olympics and played on seven World Championship teams, earning six golds and a silver, said that when she was looking at post-secondary options, there really weren’t players going to play in the NCAA. Occasionally, Canadian players would go to Ivy League schools, but Pounder pointed out those schools don’t give out athletic scholarships. Playing in the States just wasn’t on the Canadians’ radar. Now, she said, it would be doing a player a disservice if you didn’t steer them to look at that option. She said Canadian institutions are working on scholarships and bringing home-grown coaches back so that their university system can begin to catch up. 

Pounder also pointed out that the support the women of the U.S. National Team players received at their universities and colleges is exactly why they were looking for more now that they are post-grads. They became accustomed to the best in facilities, nutrition, sports medicine and more. They know what they can and should expect and they weren’t receiving it. 

Some countries have strong women’s leagues, meaning their players may be less likely to look for or need playing opportunities elsewhere. The league in Russia means their players get plenty of ice time, while Sweden has also historically had a strong women’s league, drawing North American players there when there were fewer options for strong competition after college here. 

But players from Finland, Germany and Switzerland have been taking the opportunity to come to the United States. Team Germany goalie Jennifer Harss was an early foreign-born player that came to play at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, a program that’s come to be known for being particularly welcoming to international students. 

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That the Bulldogs have also won five national championships was a draw for Switzerland’s Lara Stalder, a Patty Kazmaier top-three finalist in 2017. 

“It’s a huge level of hockey [in the NCAA]. The best players come over and play there. You get challenged as a player and you get better every day,” she said. “I knew it was an international program. When I got there, it was tough at the beginning, but you were able to share some culture with other European players.”

For Germany’s Marie Delarbre, who played at Minnesota-Duluth and Merrimack, the experience is about leaving home and growing as a player. 

“It’s really good for us, especially people going to different teams and schools. They learn different skills and systems and then come back together and have more knowledge. It’s really helpful,” she said. “It’s always been my dream to go overseas and play there because it’s so much bigger and so competitive and you learn so much.” 

No longer the milieu of a small handful of colleges looking to find an edge and compete with some of the biggest names, recruiting internationally is necessary to the success of any program at the NCAA Division I level.