After a one-year hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Minnesota Duluth is back on the road again over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and veterans like redshirt senior winger Naomi Rogge couldn’t be happier.

The Bulldogs are in Washington D.C. this weekend to take part in the D1 in DC tournament hosted by the Washington Pride junior women’s hockey program at the Medstar Capitals Iceplex. UMD takes on Penn State at 3 p.m. on Friday and St. Lawrence at 1:30 p.m. Saturday.

Ohio State, which visits Duluth in a week, is the fourth team, taking on the Saints on Friday and Nittany Lions on Saturday.

For Rogge, this is her fourth Thanksgiving trip in five seasons at UMD having previously taken part in the Nutmeg Classic at Quinnipiac (Hamden, Connecticut) in 2019, playing at Clarkson (Potsdam, New York) in 2018 and the Windjammer Classic at Vermont in 2017.

Naomi Rogge (9) of Minnesota Duluth takes control of the puck near Sophie Helgeson (3) of Wisconsin during the second period on Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. 
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune
Naomi Rogge (9) of Minnesota Duluth takes control of the puck near Sophie Helgeson (3) of Wisconsin during the second period on Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

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“We usually are able to have a big Thanksgiving dinner where parents have been there and different family, and it's just a lot of bonding between everyone as a whole,” Rogge said of what she enjoys about these trips. “We like to think Bulldog family includes our parents and our siblings as well, so I think it's super cool that we're able to all hang out together.”

While a great team bonding experience, UMD coach Maura Crowell also emphasized this is a “business trip” for a Bulldogs team that is finally playing nonconference games after 10 WCHA contests to open the 2021-22 season.

Because of scheduling issues at other schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic, UMD only has four nonconference games scheduled for this season. After playing College Hockey America’s Nittany Lions and the Saints of the ECAC this weekend, UMD travels to play the ECAC’s Harvard over New Year's.

That makes these “massive” games for a Bulldogs squad that is eyeing more than just a return to the NCAA tournament, but another Frozen Four run.

“We only have four of them, so each one is a little bit bigger,” Crowell said. “The impact of these games feels a little like a COVID year where we had less games, making them all more important. That’s how these feel, in a sense.”

The WCHA — where Crowell said every game is also massive — is currently undefeated in nonconference play heading into Thanksgiving, going 17-0-1 in games against CHA, ECAC and Hockey East. The Bulldogs and Buckeyes are the only two WCHA programs to have not played nonconference games yet, so they’re both looking to add their stamp on the league’s success.

“It makes me think of the IceBreaker Tournament a few years ago,” Crowell said, referencing UMD’s trip to Buffalo in 2019. “We played with a ton of pride in obviously UMD, but also our league, representing there. It's the same here. We talk about being the best league in the country. We have to show it. So we're excited to do that.”

NCAA tournament expansion clears another major hurdle

The NCAA Division I Competition Oversight Committee supported a recommended format for an 11-team NCAA National Collegiate Women’s Ice Hockey Championship tournament, and supported it taking effect this season.

Under the format proposed by the National Collegiate Women’s Ice Hockey Committee — which includes UMD athletic director Josh Berlo — the top five seeds will receive first-round byes, with the fifth seed playing a quarterfinal game at one of the top four seeds (but not necessarily at the No. 4 seed, though Crowell said Wednesday it is her understanding No. 4 will host No. 5, despite the NCAA’s wording).

The three first-round games would take place at the campus sites of three of the top four seeds, and there will be a day off in between the first round and quarterfinal games.

From there the tournament remains the same, with the quarterfinal winners advancing to the Frozen Four on March 18-20 at Penn State.

“The women's ice hockey committee thinks this format allows the tournament to stay on its current schedule,” the NCAA wrote. “Committee members believe it is important to make sure there is a day of rest for teams after competing in the first round, then having to face a team that received a bye into the quarterfinals.”

The format still needs final approval by the NCAA Division I Council on Dec. 15. Crowell said she is excited for that final stamp of approval to make it official.

“I think the format is going to be as good as it can be with an 11-team tournament,” said Crowell, who was part of a working group this offseason that helped put together a proposal to expand the NCAA women’s hockey tournament. “Again, our focus is on getting more teams in versus all of the nitty-gritty. However we need to get there, where we need to play, who we need to play, how that works — we'll be ready.”