As we head into the break for hockey, I figured now would be a good time to help sort out some of the details of this niche college sport. I was asked to work through some of the different levels of college hockey, including a bit on how the junior hockey system works in relation to the rest of college hockey - an aspect that is quite unique to hockey (versus other college sports). To start, I open with some of the lighter delineations of college hockey - the difference between varsity (NCAA) level and club (ACHA) level hockey.
Varsity Hockey - Playing in the NCAA
When Penn State made the jump to the NCAA, everything changed. But what is "everything"? The major change is the availability of athletic scholarships towards ice hockey - something not available at the club level. The availability of the scholarships allows the colleges to be able to assist these top hockey prospects through their collegiate careers as a student-athlete. (In the world of hockey, there is serious competition to the NCAA, which will be discussed in a future post.) Ultimately, the formula for NCAA programs is quite simple and well-known: Money = better talent = better collegiate programs = more players in the NHL = rinse, repeat.
The NCAA used to house 3 divisions for men's hockey, however due to a lack of teams, Division 2 was eliminated about a decade ago. NCAA D1 is the crown and has a mix of storied programs and new teams that vie for the championship each year. For the most part, games are played against other D1 teams, with an occasional reach down to the D3 for filler games. Sometimes, the teams will go outside of the NCAA completely - Canadian teams are the most common, ACHA rarely - to fill the schedule or to use as a warm-up game prior to the season. These out-of-NCAA games are considered exhibition games and do not count towards the season stats. D3 has a larger pool of schools (59 D1 to 79 D3), because if you have a college campus in Minnesota or Wisconsin, you have a hockey team. Still, the drop-off in talent is noticeable, and so the D3 teams are left to beat up on each other mostly.
On the women's side, they have both D1 and D3 hockey like the men. However, women's hockey is not as deep in talent, and so the championships have been traded between three teams - Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth, and Wisconsin. With only 36 teams, Women's D1 is the smallest division of the four. However, as more schools look to add ice hockey, there's little doubt that women's D1 hockey will continue to grow and become more competitive.
While the major college sports get heavy coverage from the major sports news/tabloid outlets, college hockey is often only discussed during Frozen Four time. This should come as no surprise, considering how little these same news/tabloid outlets cover the NHL. All the same, varsity hockey has their own major news outlet online - U.S. College Hockey Online, or USCHO.com (as it's better known as). They cover all four divisions, with box scores, recaps, and their own rankings which are the main rankings looked to within the college hockey circles. If you want to follow college hockey, you have to know and use USCHO.com.
Club Hockey - Welcome to the ACHA
Before Penn State made the jump to the NCAA, it was all about making the most of club hockey in the ACHA - the American Collegiate Hockey Association. Without getting into the full history, there was a kind of symbiotic growth between Penn State ice hockey and the ACHA. While Penn State was dealing with a sort of wild-west style of club hockey in the 80's, former-Icer and then-head coach Joe Battista wanted a better system. He sat down with Iowa State's head coach, Al Murdoch, and the two of them hatched out the idea and plan for a new club hockey system for colleges, and lo! the ACHA was born.
Club hockey is what you would expect of any "club" at the college level - some financial support from the college/university to cover basic expenses, but most of the expenses need to be covered by the team itself. For the great majority of players, they are students who also want to play hockey while on campus. Some of the top schools can do actual recruiting, picking up players that are fringe-NCAA talents (or NCAA transfers). Penn State has had a number of these players over the years, and teams like ASU, Oklahoma, and Liberty find themselves with the same thing right now. (Also, since there are no scholarships, there are no Title IX concerns, which is another reason why some schools stick with just club hockey.)
From its humble beginnings (a conversation by a hotel pool), the ACHA now boasts 3 men's divisions and 2 women's divisions for ice hockey. While the parity in the ACHA has been growing, there is still some steep drop-offs in talent. The top 10 (or so) of the ACHA D1 are the best, with some push from the next. But once you get past 15, there's a serious gap. The top handful of the ACHA D2 teams can hang with the top of the ACHA D1, but mostly it's a mash-up of programs happy to fill a roster with warm bodies. (Obviously, ACHA D3 only goes down from there.) On the women's side, everything really exists at the D1 level, where it's the top 10 and everyone else. The D2 level is still fairly new and struggling just to get enough teams to play full schedules. But hockey is hockey, and sometimes that's all that matters.
As a quick side note, the ACHA has a rule in place that states that schools are not allowed to field a ACHA D1 team if they have a NCAA D1 team. This explains (to an extent) why Penn State has NCAA D1 for men and women, and ACHA D2 for men and women. However, there are schools that have somehow circumvented this (Niagara, Robert Morris come to mind first), and by "somehow" I mean, "The ACHA is still a bit of a joke in terms of leadership." In any case, I believe the Penn State teams are happy at the D2 level, although I'm sure the women's side is looking for more teams.
What did we learn from all this? First, there's a crap-ton of kids who want to play hockey here in the states. I mean, really, how else can you fill out 4 NCAA divisions and 5 club divisions of hockey (not to mention junior hockey)? Second, the difference between the two is completely based on money. Schools that can foot the bill of scholarships for varsity ice hockey put themselves in the opportunity to get more quality players, which may turn into NHL players. And if you're churning players into the NHL, you're going to get more fans and more quality players, which keeps the wheel of hockey a'turning. If not, you can have a thriving club hockey scene that can provide some fringe-NCAA quality talent, but mostly just students who are happy to have an outlet that allows them to keep playing hockey.