NCAA D3 Teams Get to Showcase High Level of Play as Championships Get Underway
By Scott Lowe - MYHockeyRankings.com
For those of you who haven’t had the opportunity to watch an NCAA Division III hockey game in person – and that would probably be most of you, considering that only about 85 American colleges scattered across the Northeast and Upper Midwest sponsor the sport as a varsity program – you are in for quite a surprise if you ever get the chance to attend a D3 contest.
What will stand out immediately is the high level of play.
The speed, skill and size of the players catches most first-time observers off-guard and are evident from the moment the puck is dropped. For many reasons, the quality of play for the men’s and women’s game at the D3 level is at an all-time high, and those who have witnessed Division III competition in another sport generally are shocked by what they see on the ice.
Shocked in a good way.
Chris Sugar has been promoting Division III hockey since he was a sophomore in high school in 2016 after growing up watching the team at the State University of New York at Oswego (Oswego State) play. He runs the largest Division III Hockey-exclusive social media accounts on Twitter and Instagram, has the only D3 hockey-exclusive podcast and is the only women’s Division III contributing writer for U.S. College Hockey Online (USCHO.com).
Sugar started his Twitter account, @DIIIHockeyNews, in 2016 and has grown his base to more than 8,000 followers. He also has an Instagram account with the same name that has several-thousand followers, and his D3 Hockey News podcast has exploded since its first episode aired in March 2022.
It's safe to say that no one has seen more Division III college hockey than Sugar during the past seven years.
“The level of play when I first began watching versus now is interesting,” he said. “The difference is more noticeable and prominent on the women’s side, because of the skill and competitive drop-off we would see in the past. In past years, the talent drop-off outside of the top five to seven teams was so massive that you knew they stood no chance at winning a title or even giving those top teams a challenge. Now, especially this year, we saw more rotations within the top 10 than ever before. In my opinion, anyone can beat anyone.”
The same can be said about the men’s game, which continues to add new programs on an annual basis to satisfy the demand of quality players looking to play at the NCAA level. Television-personality Dave Starman, one of the foremost experts on amateur hockey in the United States, has for years contended that there are many more Division I-capable hockey players than there are D1 varsity roster spots available.
Division III NCAA hockey has benefitted from that glut of talent.
“For the men, the biggest change is that younger and newer programs can become good faster than ever before,” Sugar said. “This is due to coaching and recruiting, but also transfers. We saw a new team like Wilkes University become a borderline NCAA tournament contender last year, and they were undefeated for a good portion of the year, finishing 20-5-1. Aurora is another, they started the year 10-1 and finished just outside of the NCAA tournament race. Teams have more resources and players than ever to become good fast.”
The same can be said on the women’s side. Suffolk University started its varsity program in 2018, captured its conference regular-season championship last year and won the conference postseason tournament this year to earn an automatic NCAA Championship bid. The Rams just played Middlebury, the defending national champs, March 8 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and fell by a respectable 4-0 tally.
The rise to prominence of the transfer portal, which has made it much easier for student-athletes looking for a new school in hopes of finding a better personal situation or pursuing a graduate degree, combined with the fifth year of eligibility offered for every player who was enrolled during the COVID shutdown, also has benefitted the level of play at the Division III level.
More fifth-year Division I players has cut down the number of open roster spots on those teams and pushed countless players further down the depth charts. Many of those players just want a chance to play and have realized that Division III programs offer more playing time, a high level of play and outstanding academic options. The downside of this for young players is that it has become harder than ever to earn a D3 commitment.
“COVID had an interesting effect on not just D3 hockey, but everything,” Sugar said. “It gave players another year to play while also allowing D1 transfers another year. I don’t want to say D1 transfers are more common than ever now in D3, but the reality is they are. But D1 players alone aren’t the key to winning. Many coaches, such as Gary Heenan of Utica, have said that it’s not just about getting D1 guys in the locker room; it’s about getting the right D1 guys who will buy-in and are willing to take a backseat and not expect to be a focal point or top-line player because of their previous D1 status. They also cannot view D3 as a downgrade, because they’ll underestimate the true skill level and talent of the guys at this level.”
Despite the continued rise in level of play on both the men’s and women’s sides of Division III, D3 hockey remains a bit of a secret and a mystery among young hockey players and their families in the U.S. and Canada.
Even as the men’s and women’s NCAA Division III National Championship tournaments get underway this week – events that should showcase the sport at its absolute highest level of play – the sport often flies under the radar since this is one of the busiest times of year for hockey in North America. NHL teams are beginning their final push for the playoffs, NCAA Division I men’s teams are competing in their conference tournaments, the NCAA D1 Women's Championship tournament is underway and high-school and prep-school playoffs are in their final stages. On top of that, youth- and minor-hockey players around North America are competing for championships in league, state, district and provincial tournaments.
With so many non-traditional U.S. hockey markets in which youth participation in the sport is exploding – and with the southern-most Division III varsity program being located just below the Mason-Dixon line in Maryland – there simply is a lack of education and understanding about the D3 academic and athletic opportunities available for young players who want to continue their hockey careers at the collegiate level. And many of the young Canadian players who may be capable of playing NCAA hockey are unfamiliar with the quality of schools and the high level of competition available at the Division III level.
Everyone is familiar with football, basketball and other sports at the Division I level, and a high percentage of young athletes strive to compete at the D1 level. Hockey players are no different.
That’s what they see on television, and unfortunately many parents place a premium on helping their kids earn an athletic scholarship to offset the rising cost of college attendance from a young age. Young hockey players see their friends and classmates committing to play other sports at the D1 level during their junior and senior years in high school and hope to have a similar opportunity to continue their hockey careers.
When someone mentions to young hockey players that D1 hockey may not be a realistic option, but that they might be able to play at the Division III level, they often get offended and think they are being put down. The truth is that being considered a D3 hockey prospect is a tremendous compliment.
There are only 60 or so colleges that sponsor NCAA Division I men’s hockey and approximately another 85 that have D3 programs. Compare that to more than 350 Division I men’s and women’s basketball programs alone. There also are more than 300 women’s and 200 men’s D1 soccer programs, 300 Division I baseball teams, 285 D1 softball programs and the list goes on and on. Then there are several hundred more programs for those sports at the Division II and Division III levels.
There are only about 150 NCAA men’s hockey programs TOTAL and about 110 women’s programs at all levels. The sport often is compared to lacrosse, but even though there are only about 80 D1 men’s lacrosse programs, their rosters are larger than hockey rosters, and there are about 325 men’s teams at the D2 and D3 levels. Meanwhile, there are about 120 NCAA Division I women’s lacrosse programs and more than 500 colleges sponsoring the sport at the varsity level in all three divisions.
Remember what Dave Starman said: There are way more Division I hockey players than there are D1 roster spots available. These numbers prove that.
Hockey at the Division III level is equivalent to playing pretty much any other varsity sport for a mid-level or even higher D1 program. And like lacrosse, some of the higher-ranked Division III hockey teams likely could give some D1 programs a run for their money if they ever played each other.
And yet, as D3 hockey prepares to showcase its top teams competing for national championships, many people reading this probably don’t even know that the tournament selection shows were held earlier this week. Or that the men’s tournament starts March 11. Or that that women’s first-round games were held March 8 with quarterfinals set for March 11.
This year’s men’s and women’s tournaments should be the most exciting and competitive ever.
The women’s bracket was unveiled March 5, with Amherst, Adrian, Plattsburgh State, Gustavus Adolphus and the University of Wisconsin-River Falls getting first-round byes among the 14-team field. Those teams were ranked third, fourth, first, second and fifth, respectively, in Sugar’s D-III News final women’s top-15 rankings.
Opening-round matchups saw No. 15 Colby defeat No. 11 Norwich, 5-2; No. 6 Hamilton beat No. 12 Nazareth, 3-1; and No. 9 Middlebury knock off Suffolk, 4-0. At the Division III level, most early-round matchups are set up regionally to cut down on travel expenses, so as the tournaments progress we are treated to intersectional matchups of highly ranked teams that rarely occur during the regular season.
“The style of play can vary now that more physical play is allowed in the women’s game, and that makes it way more exciting than ever before from a viewing standpoint,” Sugar said. “In terms of depth, I think the Eastern conferences are deeper, but the top teams out West I’d argue are better than the East. They just don’t get the same opportunity to get favorable matchups in the tournament due to the NCAA travel mileage limits and other cost-related factors.”
Second-round matchups March 11 have New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) rivals Colby and Amherst facing off, Hamilton College of New York traveling to Michigan to take on Adrian, Middlebury from Vermont at Plattsburgh (N.Y.) and Wisconsin-River Falls at Gustavus Adolphus (Minn.).
“My women’s Frozen Four favorites are Amherst, Plattsburgh, Adrian and UW-River Falls,” Sugar said. “These teams, outside of UW-River Falls, are simply above the competition that they’ll be facing in the quarterfinals, and I think they’ll advance rather convincingly. UWRF will have a battle with Gustavus; this will be the fourth matchup between the two this season, with UWRF getting the best of the series so far, 2-1. A sleeper for me is UW-River Falls, because I don’t think people are talking about the West enough. I think they can make a lot of noise and possibly defeat Plattsburgh in the semifinals to get a date with possibly Adrian or Amherst in the championship.”
The 12-team men’s tournament gets underway March 11 on the campuses of the higher-seeded teams, with four teams receiving first-round byes.
Those getting byes include No. 1 Utica (N.Y.), No. 2 Hobart (N.Y.), No. 3 Adrian (Mich.) and No. 4 Endicott (Mass.). Opening-round matchups include No. 11 University of New England (Maine) at Plymouth State (Mass.), Augsburg (Minn.) at No. 8 Wisconsin-Stevens Point, No. 10 Norwich (Vermont) at No. 7 Plattsburgh (N.Y.) and No. 6 Curry (Mass.) at Bowdoin (Maine).
“My Frozen Four favorites are Utica, Adrian, Hobart and Plattsburgh,” Sugar said. “I think their matchups are favorable, and they’re the best teams in the tournament in my opinion. UW-Stevens Point I like a lot, but I don’t think they can get past Adrian.
“My championship favorite is tough to pick, but I’ll go with Adrian. Head coach Adam Krug has his team rolling, and they just seem tough to stop at this point. With a ridiculous 40-percent powerplay, that team is dominant. They’ve put up winning scores against teams that make you just shake your head and wonder how they embarrassed a great team that badly.”
Unfortunately, the potential quarterfinal men’s matchups wouldn’t provide for any Northeast vs. Midwest showdowns, but there is potential for No. 2 Hobart to face No. 6 Curry, No. 3 Adrian to play No. 8 Wisconsin-Stevens Point and No. 4 Endicott to take on either No. 7 Plattsburgh or No. 10 Norwich.
The Northeast vs. Midwest clashes will have to wait for the Frozen Four.
“The Midwest tends to all have a more physical style of hockey,” Sugar said. “That’s not to say all the Northeast teams don’t; there’s a few teams out East that will hammer you the entire game, but in my opinion, there’s a higher percentage of teams out West that play a more physical style than the East.”
The difference in styles and the high stakes involved should make for some exciting and interesting hockey as both the men’s and women’s tournaments progress.
If you haven’t had a chance to watch NCAA Division III hockey yet, now is the time. Check the participating teams’ athletics websites or NCAA.com for the schedule of tournaent games and links to livestreams.
Tune in once and you’ll surely come back for more. And you’ll also gain an appreciation for the high-level product that NCAA Division III men’s and women’s hockey has become.