MARQUETTE, Mich. — In the men’s hockey world, Northern Michigan University is one of seven Division I programs in Michigan. The Wildcats ended last season one win short of the final WCHA tournament title in March. Under Grand Forks native and former Minnesota Gophers star Grant Potulny, who enters his fifth season of coaching the Wildcats in 2021-22, NMU just missed a NCAA tourney berth at the hands of Upper Peninsula neighborhood rival Lake Superior State.
On the women’s hockey side, NMU is aligned with every other school in Michigan. None of them, amazingly, has a varsity women’s hockey program. In a state with twice the population of Minnesota, where the NCAA men’s hockey title banner has been hoisted 19 times (9 of them by the University of Michigan), there are no opportunities for women to play Division I hockey.
If some folks at NMU get their way, and some money, that could change in the next few years. Athletic director Forrest Karr, who has been at the school for nearly a decade, knows there’s a real opportunity for the Wildcats to be women’s hockey pioneers in Michigan.
“It might even be more than an opportunity,” said Karr, sitting in the top row of the pressbox at Berry Events Center, their on-campus arena which seats roughly 4,000 for men’s hockey and basketball. “To me it’s an obligation that we have in the state of Michigan to help grow the sport.”
You hear the idea of adding a college hockey program talked about in plenty of places. Usually, the primary obstacles are the need for a hockey rink and money. While Karr admits they need to raise funds to make women’s hockey happen, they have a hockey facility already. In a bit of a twist on the standard story, they would need a place to house their women’s and men’s basketball programs in order to make women’s hockey work. Currently, the two basketball teams and men’s hockey all play at Berry Events Center, which can make scheduling a challenge.
The Wildcats are members of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference for Division II basketball, and are now in the new Central Collegiate Hockey Association for men’s hockey. Most logically, a women’s hockey program at NMU would eventually join the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. WCHA commissioner Jennifer Flowers told The Rink Live that they have been in communication with NMU and are always supportive of new opportunities for women to compete at the Division I level.
Unfortunately, the different conferences do not collaborate on scheduling. On some winter Saturdays, Berry hosts Wildcat basketball games at 11 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. Then the arena staff hustles to remove the hardwood, put up Plexiglas and all of the other work needed to change the facility over for a 6:30 p.m. hockey game.
“We couldn’t play a women’s hockey game too unless we were to start the basketball games at 8:30 in the morning or something, and we just couldn’t do that at this level,” Karr said. “The facility is the real challenge right now, and it’s a really hard thing to put a timeline on. We have plans drawn up for a standalone basketball facility and we have plans for a renovation of the volleyball arena to a facility to accommodate both volleyball and basketball.
"So we have some options, but it is dependent on some donor funding and it’s hard to say when that might come through.”
On a walk through the rink, Karr showed off what has got to be the biggest visiting team locker room setup in college hockey, and said that they could remodel the space to give a women’s hockey program a nice-sized room of its own and “stop being as nice” to visiting teams.
Doing their hockey homework
For a smaller college in a remote and stunningly beautiful part of the world on the shore of Lake Superior, NMU is not without its notable alumni in the sports and business worlds. Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo, who has led the Spartans to the Final Four eight times, played for and coached the Wildcats. Ditto for former NFL head coaches Steve Mariucci and Jerry Glanville, and current New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh. And in the early 1970s, Howard Schultz got his college degree at NMU long before he was president and CEO of a little coffee shop called Starbucks, as well as owning a NBA team and running for U.S. president.
While Karr did not specifically name any potential donors, it would seem that a few generous checks from folks who once trudged through the snow to class at NMU could solve the facilities question quickly. According to a 2019 Deadspin article, Schultz, for one, has notoriously had little to do with the school financially in the past.
Still, an extensive 2019 study by former St. Cloud State athletic director Morris Kurtz, which was commissioned by College Hockey Inc. and the NHL, showed that the ground is fertile for the addition of women’s hockey at NMU, and Karr has been in contact with his colleagues at schools like Wisconsin, Minnesota State University-Mankato, Minnesota Duluth and others on the topic. He noted that the state of Michigan is already one of the top five producers of women’s college hockey players in the country.
“And that’s without even having a Division I women’s program for young athletes to aspire to,” said Karr, who grew up near Madison, Wis., and was a goalie at Notre Dame before getting into athletic administration. “I can’t imagine the number of players that the state of Michigan would produce on the women’s side if there was some Division I women’s college hockey for those families to take their daughters to at a young age.”