The astonishing story behind the first Women's Frozen Four

Erica Ayala takes a deep dive into women's hockey history.

Hi friends, and welcome to Power Plays, a no-BS newsletter about sexism in sports, written by me, Lindsay Gibbs.


Today I’m thrilled to be passing the torch to the incomparable Erica Ayala, who is an expert commentator and reporter on all women’s sports, but is especially essential to follow due to her coverage of the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) and the WNBA’s New York Liberty. Please support her Patreon and follow her on Twitter.

Last week, we had some women’s hockey planned here at Power Plays, but then unfortunately the NWHL season ended early and abruptly due to the spread of the coronavirus. As I pivot to different women’s hockey stories, I thought it was the perfect time to finally publish this phenomenal piece that Erica wrote for Power Plays last year about the first NCAA women’s Frozen Four.

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And now, here’s Erica Ayala with a deep dive into a pivotal period of women’s hockey history.

How the UMD Bulldogs and St. Lawrence Saints made women’s hockey history

By Erica Ayala

UMD shows off their championship trophy after defeating St. Lawrence during the Inaugural Women's Division I Hockey Championship held at Mariucci Arena on the campus of the University of Minnesota. CREDIT: Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

In 2001, Gina Kingsbury was a freshman forward on the St. Lawrence women’s hockey team when her Saints lost to the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs, coached by Shannon Miller, in the NCAA championship game.

Thirteen years later, Kingsbury joined Miller on the UMD staff for the 2014-15 season. When she arrived to Duluth, hanging on the wall to greet her was a photo of that 2001 game. 

“The picture of the 2001 win was right next to my office, I walked by it pretty much every day,” said Kingsbury, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who now serves as the Hockey Canada director of women’s teams. “I used to joke with Shannon like, ‘Really? Can we move this?’” 

The mere memory of the photograph still bothers Kingsbury, but she knows it’s a snapshot of a pivotal era for women’s college hockey. It’s been 19 years since the young-yet-steady St. Lawrence Saints met the dominant-yet-vexing UMD Bulldowgs in the first-ever NCAA National Championship Game.

The 2001 Women’s Frozen Four was a culmination of many years of hard work to put women’s hockey on the map. 

The early days of women’s hockey

In 1964, Brown University Men’s Hockey head coach Jim Fullerton invited Nancy Schieffelin, a sophomore at Brown’s women’s college, Pembroke, to practice with his team. By the next year, the Pembroke Pandas, the fierce-yet-delicate name selected for the women’s team by a local newspaper, became the first women’s hockey team in the United States. Cornell, Yale and Princeton established women’s programs in the following years. 

The Cornell Big Red won the first Ivy League Tournament in 1976. Four years later, there were 16 collegiate women’s hockey teams clustered in the northeast. By 1984, women’s Division I and Division III varsity teams competed under the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC). 

At this time, women’s hockey was held together by the passion of the coaches and players on the ice, and not much more. Laura Halldorson, a former Princeton women’s hockey player and the first University of Minnesota varsity women’s hockey head coach, remembers having a scheduled game at Providence delayed for over an hour because the Providence men’s team went over their practice time. “That’s how important women’s ice hockey was,” Halldorson told the Star Tribune in 2002. 

Varsity women’s hockey increased its profile as the sport began to grow on the international stage. The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) sanctioned the first Women’s World Championship tournament in 1990, and in 1994, the International Olympic Committee (IOC)  announced women’s hockey would be introduced at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympic Games. 

That was a huge deal.

“I remember watching the 1998 Games in Nagano. I was up at like two in the morning to watch games. It sparked something inside of me I can't really explain,” Kingsbury, who was 17 at the time, told Power Plays. 

Team USA celebrates after winning the women's gold medal match against Team Canada at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics on February 17, 1998 CREDIT: B Bennett/Getty

For her and many others, women’s hockey being in the Olympics meant the sport had arrived, it was legitimate. 

While the NCAA had been running men’s ice hockey tournaments since 1948, it had no interest in women’s hockey for decades. But the same year as the Nagano Olympics, the American Women’s College Hockey Alliance (AWCHA) — which was financed by a grant from the U.S. Olympic Committee — was formed in order to run the first national women’s college tournament. The University of New Hampshire won the first-ever women’s hockey national championship in 1998. The following year, Harvard won the title behind a Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award-worthy performance by Olympic champion AJ Mleczko. 

Those first two AWCHA tournaments were such a success, that in 2000, the NCAA finally decided that it wanted in on the action. 

Building the Bulldogs 

Schools in the northeast ruled the first three decades of women’s college hockey. But the third and final AWCHA tournament in 2000 marked a sea change, as the Minnesota Gophers defeated the Brown Bears 4-2 to win the first national title for a team in the newly-formed Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA).

Since it was established in 1999, WCHA teams have won 17 national championships, and the women’s college game has become synonymous with the midwest. But while the Gophers got the ball rolling, it was Shannon Miller and the UMD Bulldogs that changed women’s hockey forever. 

From 1998-2015, Miller left an indelible mark on women’s hockey, even if it was somewhat controversial from the start. 

Coach Shannon Miller of Canada talks to her team during the 3 Nations Cup Championship game against the USA in Lake Placid on December 20, 1997. CREDIT: Rick Stewart /Allsport

Miller was the head coach of the Canadian women’s national team from 1997-1998. UMD chancellor Kathryn Martin first noticed Miller and her bench-boss style in the 1998 Winter Olympics, and reached out to gauge Miller’s interest in coaching in America.

Although from Canada, Miller knew how big college sports were in the United States. She was drawn to the opportunity to elevate women’s hockey under the NCAA umbrella. But she knew that recruiting would be a challenge. 

“I moved to Duluth and I realized, I'm in a smaller city, we're in rural Minnesota. And we're a Division II school with Division I hockey, which has some benefits but more obstacles,” said Miller. 

Miller was competing in the same conference with huge sports schools, like Minnesota and Ohio State. “I'm like, ‘Oh my god, they're huge. There’s 100 people in their marching band for football games.’ I’m watching this on TV going, 'How am I gonna overcome this?’”

Miller would do it by recruiting European talent. Her style was not liked by others in the college ranks. In fact, Miller was accused of illegal recruiting practices. Further, it was rumored her players who were likely to compete in the 2002 Winter Olympics — Swedish players Maria Rooth and Erika Holst, Finnish goaltender Tuula Puputti, and American and Gopher transfer Jenny Potter (nee Schmidgall) — would not return to school after the Games. 

The players denied those claims. ''I think hockey has always been No. 1 in my life, but it's very important now to keep school on track, too,'' Holst told the New York Times in January 2000. ''As it is now, you can't play hockey as a girl. I think you need to get a degree. I think that it is kind of good that we have to get to a certain point to be able to play, that we have to work hard in school.''

The second challenge was funding. The Times reported that for its first women’s hockey season, UMD provided a budget of $500,000, including a mere nine scholarships, compared to a full 18 allotted for the UMD men's teams and other women's teams in the WCHA. Miller remembers having to beg for one of those scholarships after a goaltender flunked out.

“(Duluth’s) plan was incremental, and for us to get better every year and grow. So you only got so many scholarships each year. We're playing in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Minnesota for sure was already at a full complement of 18 scholarships that year when we beat them,” said Miller, referring to UMD defeating the Gophers in the 2001 WCHA Conference Championship. 

Because of the lack of resources, Miller relied on her club team players, whom she was also coaching, to help fill the roster. “I don't want to minimize the role of the club players,” said Miller. “That club program helped us. Those first, say three years, they were part of the team.  Not all of them, but some of them made it and they were there for either no money or very little money.”

Forward Chera Marshall (4) of St. Lawrence plays rough with Maria Rooth (27) of UMD during the Inaugural Women's Division 1 Hockey Championship. CREDIT: Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

As the recruiting classes at Duluth grew, that meant less room for club players. The players either graduated or stepped aside for the Duluth team to fill its roster with scholarship athletes. 

“They were a key part of us winning early, they really were. They were as much a part of the team as a Maria Rooth, even though they may not have played as much as her or scored as much as her. They were still on the team rowing in the boat.”

Despite the obstacles, success came quickly. In Miller’s first season as head coach, the Bulldogs made it to the third and final AWCHA tournament in 2000, falling to the Gophers in the semifinals.

The Canton Underdogs

While Miller was laying the foundation for a dynasty in Duluth, Kingsbury was using the spark she felt while watching the Olympics to fuel an elite college hockey career of her own.

In 1998, she left Saskatchewan to attend The Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, and her academic advisors there introduced her to St. Lawrence, a small, private liberal arts college in Canton, New York, with a long-running women’s hockey club team that had recently made the jump to Division I.

When she was a freshman, Kingsbury and the St. Lawrence Saints traveled to Duluth to open the 2000-01 season, where the Saints were routinely swept by Miller and the Bulldogs. 

“That weekend had a pretty big impact on me. I can't tell you the scores. I do believe we lost both. If not, I felt like we got outplayed, but they were really, really strong,” recalled Kingsbury. 

She was aware the Bulldogs had qualified for the AWCHA tournament in previous season, and of course knew Miller was the former Hockey Canada head coach. What surprised Kingsbury most, much like Miller as she got acclimated to American college culture, was the pep band making noise at a hockey game. 

“I remember their band. That was something that stands out to me when I first experienced playing college hockey,” Kingsbury said. “For us Canadians, that's not something that's typical. So that really stuck out to me. They were loud and intimidating to say the least.” 

Of course, the band wasn’t the only obstacle; the first-year forward also had to overcome top international players, like the Swedish National team’s Maria Rooth and Erika Holst, on the ice. 

“They had an incredible international flair and these athletes were known on the world stage, right? They were there playing for Team Sweden and Team Finland and that's obviously intimidating for a small town Quebec athlete,” she said. 

St. Lawrence had fielded a women’s ice hockey team on the club level since 1974, and made its Division I debut in 1997. But it was hardly a factor on the national stage; in the 1999-00 season, the first for head coach Paul Flanagan, the team finished seventh in the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC).

Forward Joanne Fustace (9) of UMD and forward Amanda Sargeant (7) of St. Lawrence eye the puck controlled by forward Nicole Kirnnan (8) of St. Lawrence University during the Inaugural Women's Division I Hockey Championship. CREDIT: Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

But in 2000, Flanagan had four phenomenal underclassmen leading his team. Kingsbury, alongside sophomores Amanda Sargeant and Shannon Smith all averaged at least a point per game that season. Freshman goalie Rachel Barrie posted a .928 save percentage and 2.07 goals against average, good enough to earn ECAC Rookie of the Year. 

After dropping their first two games to Duluth, the Saints went undefeated (seven wins, two ties) in the next nine games. They headed into the ECAC Conference Tournament with a 23-6-3 record. 

“If I look back at that team, we had a really good team. I think we were definitely underdogs in the sense that we're from small Canton, New York. A 2,000 population school. We were probably not a team that was on anyone's radar,” said Kingsbury. 

In 2001, only four teams competed in the inaugural NCAA Tournament. Minnesota Duluth (26–5–4) and Dartmouth (26-3-1) entered as WCHA and ECAC Conference Champions, respectively. The final two teams were selected by a committee. 

“I remember going as a team, getting together and watching the NCAA make the announcement on what four teams will be participating in the Frozen Four,” said Kingsbury. “As much as we felt that we had a great team that deserves to be there, there's still that underdogness that you're like, ‘Are we gonna get picked? There's all these other conferences, will we be selected?’”

The impact of the inaugural women’s Frozen Four

The worrying was for naught; the committee selected St. Lawrence and Harvard (23-10-0) to compete in the first-ever NCAA Frozen Four alongside Minnesota-Duluth and Dartmouth. In the semifinals, Duluth took care of Harvard and St. Lawrence upset Dartmouth. 

The stage was set: In just its second year as a varsity team, the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs would take on the St. Lawrence Saints in the first-ever NCAA Tournament championship game for women’s hockey. 

A crowd of 5,178 watched Duluth win 4-2 over St. Lawrence at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis. Duluth’s Maria Rooth was named the Most Outstanding Player. Tuula Pupputi from Duluth and Isabelle Chartrand and Amanda Sargeant joined Rooth on the first NCAA All-Tournament team. 

UMD celebrates their victory over St. Lawrence University during the Inaugural Women's Division I Hockey Championship held at Mariucci Arena. CREDIT: Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

“We'll be a top team for many years to come,” Miller told the New York Times after the March 25th win at Mariucci Arena Minneapolis. She was right. Miller and the Bulldogs went on to win five NCAA national titles in the first 10 years of the program. 

After 16 seasons, her run came to an unceremonious end, when Duluth decided not to retain Miller and her entire coaching staff, including Kingsbury, after the 2014-15 season. Her termination led to a drawn out lawsuit, where Miller was eventually rewarded a $4.5 million settlement in December 2019. 

In the five years Miller and Duluth fought it out in court, NCAA women’s ice hockey continued to grow. The 2019-20 season was arguably the best college season in the history of the NCAA-led women’s game. Both Princeton and Ohio State won their first conference titles. Cornell had a dominant season, earning them the top seed in the 2020 NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, the NCAA cancelled the 2020 Frozen Four due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Nevertheless, NCAA women’s ice hockey has become a prime destination for top international players, such as Swiss forward Lara Stalder (Minnesota Duluth), Finnish goalie Noora Raty (Minnesota), and rising stars Jesse Compher (USA Hockey, Boston University), and Daryl Watts (Hockey Canada, Boston College/Wisconsin).

Although her time in Duluth ended on a sour note, Miller’s optimistic about the future of women’s college hockey. To this day, she is concerned that not all women’s programs are given reasonable resources to compete. However, Miller believes her win over Duluth is proof things are changing. 

“For me, I say there's hope. But, we've got a long way to go,” Miller said.

Canada's forward Gina Kingsbury (27) celebrates with the fans after Canada beat USA to win the gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. CREDIT: LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images

Gina Kingsbury, meanwhile, graduated from St. Lawrence in 2004 with a degree in psychology, and went on to become a stalwart of the Canadian national team, winning three world championship and two Olympic gold medals. She is currently the Hockey Canada director of women’s national teams, a role she took on two months after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) folded. She is excited by the growth in the NCAA game, and hopes post-graduate opportunities follow suit.

Kingsbury believes in the resilience of women’s hockey, even though between labor disputes and the coronavirus pandemic, it’s been a tumultuous time for the sport. She is particularly excited about the player-led Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA). As the independent barnstorming collective enters its third year, it hopes to improve visibility for the sport, along with higher standards of what constitutes professional women’s hockey.  

“It's not gonna happen overnight,” said Kingsbury. “But our sport has been built [by] pioneers that have paved the way and have fought very hard for little gains here and there. They did it selflessly, and I think we have to continue to carry the torch.”

Thanks so much for supporting Power Plays, friends! Paid subscribers, I’ll see you another time or two this week. Everyone else, we’ll catch up next week. -Lindsay

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