BEMIDJI -- As soon as the University of St. Thomas received approval from the NCAA’s Division I Council to rise from Division III to the NCAA’s top tier, the Tommies had a new home for women’s hockey.
The Western Collegiate Hockey Association will welcome St. Thomas into the league beginning with the 2021-22 season, the conference announced Wednesday. The WCHA’s Board of Governors voted unanimously to make the Tommies the league’s eighth member.
St. Thomas will join the Summit League for most other sports, while the football team will compete in the Pioneer Football League in the Football Championship Subdivision.
“A conference decision is pending for men’s hockey,” the school said.
The Central Collegiate Hockey Association could be where the St. Thomas men’s hockey program winds up. CCHA commissioner Don Lucia has said there have been conversations with UST, and noted the school would be a good fit as the new league’s eighth member.
Bemidji State head coach Jim Scanlan was pleased with Wednesday’s news.
“They’re going to be a great addition,” he said. “Firstly, it’ll be the first private school in the league. They have tremendous history in their athletic department. Women’s ice hockey has been very successful. The geographic footprint fits. It’s another team in Minnesota, for travel purposes. Everything about it I think is super positive for the WCHA.”
The WCHA has been searching for an eighth member ever since North Dakota cut its program following the 2016-17 season.
“I think obviously from a financial standpoint it makes life easier for the rest of us,” Scanlan said. “Just in terms of financing a league with just seven schools, because compared to eight, obviously that’s going to help.”
Eight teams will help balance the schedule and lessen travel expenses for teams like BSU.
“(It’s been) a bit of a challenge finding 10 nonconference games as opposed to six,” Scanlan said. “You lost a trip that would cost maybe $5,000 to North Dakota. Now you’re having to pick up, in some cases, a flight out east, which now you’re talking $35-40,000. Just from that standpoint, that’s going to help in terms of our travel budget.”
St. Thomas has experienced its share of success at the Division III level. The Tommies completed their 20th consecutive winning season in 2019-20 and have qualified for the NCAA Tournament six times since the program’s first season of NCAA competition in 1998-99.
“I think they’re sitting in a great spot from a recruiting standpoint,” Scanlan said. “I think the athletic department is doing very, very well financially, even in these times. I don’t think it’ll take them long to fit right in the league and be another really good program.”