ST. PAUL — The future is bright, and fairly certain for women’s hockey at the University of St. Thomas.
In conjunction with the announcement that the Tommies were moving to the NCAA Division I level in all sports came the news that the St. Thomas women’s team was the newest member of the WCHA women’s league. They already play in an arena with seating for 900 (ideal for women’s hockey at the D-I level) and they fit the WCHA’s geographic footprint as the league’s sixth Minnesota-based team.
“In some ways, it was a no-brainer. I think it’s an absolute win-win for both of us. Our board voted unanimously back in April to extend an invitation and I think we’ve been patiently waiting to celebrate that,” WCHA women’s commissioner Jennifer Flowers said. “We’re so excited and we’re very proud.
"To get us back to eight members was huge, but it wasn’t just any eighth member. It was an eighth member that was going to make the WCHA better and we definitely got better with this announcement.”
The good news is similar for the Tommies men's hockey team, which will also become the state’s sixth D-I program a year from now. But for them, the move comes with two important needs: They need to find a conference, and to compete at the D-I level long-term, they will likely need to find a new arena.
In a Thursday morning Zoom call, St. Thomas athletic director Phil Esten said questions of conference and facility are being carefully considered.
The new Central Collegiate Hockey Association, which begins play in 2021-22, currently has seven teams, including Bemidji State and Minnesota State University-Mankato. It would seem to be the logical landing spot for the Tommies.
Esten and CCHA commissioner Don Lucia have been friends since the days they both worked at the University of Minnesota. The two have been in contact for more than a year, long before Lucia was named to the position. Both men said no formal presentation has been made to the CCHA, nor has an invitation been extended by the CCHA.
“As we sit and watch the landscape of men’s hockey also shift a little bit, we’ve had conversations with several people in Division I hockey, and Don’s among them, along with several others,” Esten said. “I think it’s important to note that as we look for a right fit from a conference standpoint, it’s not simply our decision to make. We need to seek and secure an invitation...and that doesn’t happen overnight.”
A new hockey home?
Talking about his facilities, Esten said that St. Thomas Ice Arena, located in suburban Mendota Heights, Minn., adjacent to St. Thomas Academy, will be the home of the Tommies men “in the short term” as they consider their options.
“From a facilities standpoint, right now there isn’t anything that requires us to do anything further than what we’re doing,” Esten said. “We’ll certainly take a look at student-athlete amenities — from a recruiting standpoint and an experience standpoint — fan amenities, as well as the revenue opportunities in those venues, and we’ll have to assess how that plays out over time.”
While speculation has begun that St. Thomas may build a multi-purpose hockey and basketball arena on or near its campus in the future, there are other, larger places the Tommies could play in the metro area, at least temporarily, including Ridder Arena at the University of Minnesota, the State Fairgrounds Coliseum (although that facility has not had ice since 2014) and the lower bowl of Xcel Energy Center. Esten indicated that having their current rink as a home base and moving some games elsewhere is a possibility.
“There are some other facilities across the community that may offer slightly larger capacities and, on occasion, we may compete in a game where we think we need something larger and may take a look at that,” he said.
Lucia said that there is not an official minimum arena requirement for a school to be considered for CCHA membership, but indicated that a new arena would serve St. Thomas well.
“I think it’s fair to assume that they’re going to be looking at adding some kind of facility for hockey if they want to make this endeavor to play at the Division I level,” Lucia said, by phone from his home in Alaska. “If they could find a footprint and a location to build something with 3,000 seats, that’s probably what they need in this day and age.”
Per statistics from College Hockey Inc., of the 60 teams competing at the men’s D-I level of hockey last season, only two — Arizona State with 747 and Alaska-Anchorage with 750 — have seating capacities smaller than that of St. Thomas Ice Arena.