Head of the Class

The Expansion Of ACHA Women’s Programs Keeps More Players In The Game
Joe Paisley

In the world of the American Collegiate Hockey Association, referring to its 500-plus member teams as "club hockey" is viewed as a four-letter word. 

That colloquialism falls short of acknowledging the ACHA's role in providing opportunities for men and women to play competitive hockey while getting a college education. 

These are not pickup games between students played at a local rink. The organization provides structure and regulations that promote the quality of play, including national awards and championship tournaments.

"The ACHA has much more to offer than what people think," said Lindenwood-Belleville (Ill.) coach Katherine Hannah. "People do not know the opportunities at the ACHA level and certainly grossly misunderstand the level of talent that is hosted on many top teams. 

"The fact that the tag "club hockey" comes along with it doesn't help. Certainly, there are many teams that are club run and governed by the students, but there are also many teams that are fully funded and modeled after the NCAA and what USPORT (Canada) have to offer."

Founded in 1991, the ACHA now supports five divisions (men's Division I,  II and III and women's Division I and II) totaling more than 500 men's teams in the United States and Canada. 

On the women's sides, there are 23 Div. I programs and 49 Div. II teams. And with the continued growth of girls' hockey programs around the country, more opportunities are available for talented female players to continue playing the game as more schools are added to the ACHA ranks. 

 "We've received at least three applications for ACHA membership for next season at the Div. I level alone," said Molly Mahoney, the women's Div. I commissioner. "That is up from years past, and there are teams that have inquired but haven't filled out the application yet."

Not only has the number of ACHA programs expanded, the quality of those players competing has continued to improve, thanks in large part to a greater emphasis on player development under the guidance of USA Hockey. 

According to Arizona State coach Lindsey Ellis, the gap in talent between the non-scholarship NCAA Div. III and ACHA Div. I programs has shrunk in recent years. 

"The gap has significantly decreased over the years and the top-tier ACHA Div. I teams are beating NCAA Div. III teams on a regular basis," she said. "While every league still has room to grow, the ACHA is growing at a rapid pace.

"Collegiate women's hockey has seen the most growth in the Western states in the past few years, with teams in Arizona, Utah and Colorado," she added. "Five years ago, this would have been unheard of."

That expansion shows no sign of slowing down as more youth hockey players consider the ACHA as a viable option to stay in the game even if they do not end up in an NCAA Div. I (scholarship) program.

 "I truly believe the ACHA has created more interest and growth for those players at the youth level," Ellis said, citing examples in Arizona, Georgia and Kentucky. 

"There are teams around the league that have created a loyal fan base in places where you wouldn't exactly expect there to be a hockey team. That is only just touching the base of how many great collegiate ACHA teams there are around the country." 

A number of ACHA alumni have also gone on to compete in women's professional leagues, including Paige Harrington (Penn State and UMass) who helped the Buffalo Beauts win the 2017 Isobel Cup as champions of the NWHL, and Cassie Dunn (Penn State) who now plays for the Connecticut Whale.

Even with the strides the ACHA has made, spreading the word remains a challenge.

"I am always shocked when people say they don't know about the ACHA. It does happen and it gives us the opportunity to talk up our league and let people know everything it has to offer," Mahoney said. 

As fan interest continues to slowly grow-many top programs draw large crowds-more schools have expressed interest in adding women's hockey to their ranks.

The organization's profile grew in 2011 when USA Hockey began enlisting ACHA players to compete at the World University Games. The Americans hope to improve on bronze medals in 2013 and 2017 when the puck drops on this year's tournament in Krasnoyarsk, Russia.

"These tournaments prove that the ACHA is not just 'club hockey' and that we have highly committed, world-class athletes and coaches within our league that can compete at an international level," Ellis said. 

It also provides another opportunity for ACHA players to live out the dream of wearing the red, white and blue.

"From my own personal experience there is nothing more satisfying than wearing your country's jersey across your chest and the sense of pride that comes along with it," Hannah said. 

Joe Paisley is a freelance writer from Colorado Springs, Colo.





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