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women's college hockey notebook

NEWHA takes important steps as women’s college hockey continues to grow

"We are headed in the right direction," said NEWHA commissioner Bob DeGregorio.Atlantic Hockey

The New England Women’s Hockey Alliance might still be the new kid on the women’s college hockey block, but a summer development has the league finally in contention with its older counterparts.

The NEWHA, run out of Winthrop and made up of schools from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and Connecticut, begins the 2022-23 season with a seventh member in Stonehill and its first-ever automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

On Aug. 10, the NCAA ruled that five conferences — Hockey East, ECAC, WCHA, College Hockey America, and the NEWHA — will place their champions in the postseason. It was a day that NEWHA commissioner and longtime local hockey administrator Bob DeGregorio had long waited for.

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“We had done what we needed to do for the NCAA to obtain the bid,” said DeGregorio. “It helps the league. We are headed in the right direction.”

Stonehill’s addition is a boon for the NEWHA and for the sport in Massachusetts. Led by coach Tara Watchorn, the former Boston University star and an Olympic gold medalist, the team has eight Massachusetts players on the roster, as it gives area athletes more college opportunities.

Besides adding teams, the NEWHA also has grown because of its robust nonleague scheduling, which wouldn’t have happened without national support.

“I give the coaches credit, and I have to give the other league commissioners a lot of credit,” said DeGregorio. “I said to them, ‘We’re all trying to grow the sport. We’re all trying to make the sport better. At the beginning, our teams might be easy wins, but we’re going to get better if you schedule us.’ ”

Playing against the best is one of the best recruiting tools teams have.

“A recruit gets excited about the schedule, about the teams they are going to face,” said DeGregorio. “That helps you.”

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Last year, Franklin Pierce won the NEWHA title. This year, it has a well-rounded nonconference slate, playing Boston College, St. Thomas, Penn State, Holy Cross, and Union. If Franklin Pierce repeats as conference champ, it will benefit from having played teams from every other NCAA conference.

“It’s important that they expose themselves to a national schedule,” said DeGregorio. “You have to get used to the different styles of play and the different officiating.”

Last season, the NCAA tournament expanded to 11 teams, a number chosen because it equals the same percentage of Division 1 men’s teams that make the tournament. For the first time this March, a NEWHA team will be among them, which DeGregorio thinks is great for the women’s game. He has been involved in the sport since its beginning, and hopes that more teams and further tournament expansion is on the horizon.

“The sport deserves it,” said DeGregorio. “It’s time.”

Scoring change

The NCAA approved another change at that Aug. 10 meeting. Instead of using the rating percentage index (RPI) to determine at-large NCAA berths, women’s hockey will now use the NCAA percentage index (NPI).

The NCAA women’s ice hockey committee told the Competition Oversight Committee that “the NPI provides a better calculation that is based on winning percentage and the opponent’s rating itself (rather than the combination of opponents’ winning percentage and opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage) as the measure of schedule strength.”

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The RPI determined strength of schedule by considering the winning percentage of a team’s opponents’ opponents by over 50 percent. Changing the calculation may make at-large selections more equitable.

It is a change that has been considered for several years but was delayed by nonconference schedules being curtailed during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons.

Learning on the fly

The only Hockey East team to make a coaching change in the offseason was Maine. On Aug. 16, the Black Bears announced that Molly Engstrom would be their new head coach. The only problem: They had never officially announced that they needed one.

Several Bangor-area news outlets had reported in July that Richard and Sara Reichenbach, the team’s head and assistant coaches, were leaving their posts. However, the university never made an official announcement of their departure, instead just announcing Engstrom’s hire in mid-August. (An August email to Maine’s athletic communications department was not returned.)

Engstrom, who previously coached at St. Cloud State, arrived in Orono as classes and practices were about to begin.

“I have been thrown into the fire a little bit,” said Engstrom at Hockey East Media Day Sept. 13. “I was hired less than a month ago, and I am just trying to iron everything out. It’s been an evaluation process. I’m just trying to figure out what we have.”

Two assistant coaches joined Engstrom in September. One of them, Gen Richardson, is a Boston College alum who has coached throughout the Boston area.

The new coaching regime picked up its first win over the weekend, but acknowledged that because of their late start, this year could be bumpy.

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“I think we will take this year to figure out where we are at and where we want to go,” said Engstrom.


Kat Cornetta can be reached at sportsgirlkat@gmail.com.