College ice hockey is played principally in the United States and Canada, though leagues exist outside North America.
In the United States, competitive "college hockey" refers to ice hockey played between colleges and universities within the governance structure established by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
In Canada, the term "college hockey" refers to community college and small college ice hockey that currently consists of a varsity conference—the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference (ACAC) -- and a club league—the British Columbia Intercollegiate Hockey League (BCIHL). "University hockey" is the term used for hockey primarily played at four-year institutions; that level of the sport is governed by U Sports.
Formation in the United States
In fall of 1892, Malcolm Greene Chace, then a Freshman at Brown University, and Robert Wrenn, of Harvard University, were participating in a tennis tournament in Niagara Falls, Ontario. They both had dabbled a bit in a sport called ice polo; in Ontario, they met members of the Victoria Hockey Club, who introduced them to their similar game of ice hockey, and invited the two to visit Montreal to learn about their version of the game.
The next winter, during Christmas break 1894-1895, Chace (who had by then transferred to Yale University) and Wrenn returned to Canada with a group of college students from several universities in tow. The cadre was one of the first American ice hockey teams and, after a 10-game tour of Canada, the students returned to their respective schools with the intent of founding collegiate ice hockey clubs.
Yale, where Chace served as team captain and player-coach, was the first of the group to organize its team and in February 1896 the Bulldogs played the first two intercollegiate ice hockey games against Johns Hopkins University. While Johns Hopkins' program would cease for 90 years after 1898, Yale has served as a bedrock of college hockey ever since, playing continually for 125 seasons (as of 2020) including through the Great Depression and two world wars.
Another game often cited as the "first game of intercollegiate ice hockey played in the United States" is a well-documented contest on January 19, 1898 at Franklin Park, Boston. Students from Brown took the train to Boston, where they commandeered a patch of a frozen pond in Franklin Park, asked pleasure skaters to give them room, and played students from Harvard. The details and outcome of the game were recorded in the following day's Boston Herald: Brown 6, Harvard 0.
Within ten years all eight schools that would eventually comprise the Ivy League had played their first game as well as several other nearby teams. A lack of available ice was the primary concern for most schools as to whether they should start a program or continue supporting an existing team but that did not detract from the enthusiasm of the student bodies.
Early style of play
For at least the first 25 years of intercollegiate play the teams used a 7-on-7 format, a typical setup for turn of the century ice hockey. On a faceoff players were typically arranged as either four forwards, two point men and one goaltender or three forwards, one rover two point men and one goaltender.
In the four forward setup the players were arranged from a faceoff as a left and right wing (or end) on the outside and a left and right center on the inside. The two point men and goaltender were typically arrayed in a line from center ice to the goal as cover point, point and goaltender. If viewed from above the players would form a ' T '.
If a rover was used instead there would only be one center. The rover would line up either in a defensive or offensive position depending on the need. The remaining five positions would be unchanged. By the 1921–22 season college hockey adopted the increasingly more common 6–aside format with the abandonment of the second center/rover position and the two point men being renamed as 'defensemen'. The change from point men to defensemen comes as a result of an alignment change where instead of lining up one in front of the other, the two defensive players would play beside one another.
The ice surfaces that the players played on were not of a uniform size. Rinks like the St. Nicholas Rink or Duquesne Gardens were few and far between and quite often teams would only be able to play on frozen ponds. Slightly more consistent were the length of games, however, there was no set game time. Most were played as two 20-minute halves but some games had 15- or 25-minute halves and others were one 40-minute period. Occasionally games were not able to be played entirely at one time so the teams would arrange to meet at a later date to finish the match. Overtime after a tie did not always occur, as ice times at public skating rinks were constrained, but even when teams were able to play extra frames the rules were somewhat flexible; because there were no lights illuminating the ponds, games could only be played while the sun was shining and in the winter months dusk came quickly. The teams would attempt to finish the game with a winner decided but even after multiple overtimes ties did result.
Stabilizing the game
From the start college hockey teams were rarely in a place of surety. In the 10 years since Johns Hopkins' exit in 1898 at least a dozen teams were forced to cancel seasons or suspend their program entirely, including some of the more financially sound institutions like Cornell University and Brown University. The two main factors in this were interest from the student body and the lack of available or good ice. While the interest conundrum required a more nuanced solution, the ice troubles had a more tangible answer. Teams near to public skating rinks would be able to hold their games at venues where ice conditions could be ensured but at the start, with so few available, some programs came up with novel solutions. One such idea came from Harvard University who, after completing construction of their football stadium in 1904, decided to erect two open-air rinks on the field for the team to use.
As rinks continued to be built in areas near to the colleges, specifically the Boston Arena, New Haven Arena and Philadelphia Ice Palace, college teams had more and more ice rinks available to them and with most using artificial ice the teams were no longer dependent on weather conditions. Owing to the popularity of the game the first on-campus, purpose-built arena was constructed by Princeton University in 1923. Most schools were content with buying ice time from local rink operators while others simply didn't want to fund the building of their own version of the Hobey Baker Memorial Rink. As the weather warmed in the 1930s and 40s many of these teams would be forced to decide whether they were willing to financially support their ice hockey programs or not. Army, for instance, had Smith Rink built in 1930 while Cornell struggled with the ice on Beebe Lake until after World War II.
World War I aftermath
The vast majority of teams ceased operating in 1917 after the United States entered World War I. This made sense as many of the students who would otherwise have been playing had instead joined the military. Because the war ended in November 1918 many of the teams returned to the ice for the 1918–19 season and, while the game continued to grow around New England, an interesting development happened shortly after the armistice was signed.
Colleges in the midwest began their own ice hockey programs. At the beginning these were typically restricted to upper-echelon universities like the University of Minnesota or the University of Michigan but some of the smaller schools got into the game as well. From the MIAC's foundation in 1920, member schools have played ice hockey and were able to establish the first consistent lower-tier competition in college hockey.
Surviving the Depression
While college ice hockey flourished in the 1920s the Great Depression did have an impact on the game in the '30s. Most schools that had established programs made the effort to keep their teams going but some less-acclaimed teams like Pennsylvania or Columbia decided that ice hockey wasn't worth the cost. Some of the smaller schools like Rensselaer had no choice but to suspend their programs as they did not have the resources that a Harvard or Yale did. After the first half of the 1930s, however, the depression lessened and schools were able to found or restart their programs. The game continued to expand west with the addition of Gonzaga, USC, UCLA and others, however, none of the Pacific-coast teams would make it to the 1950s.
World War II hiatus
As had happened during the first world war, the majority of universities suspended their ice hockey teams during World War II. Most of teams that were active just prior to the U.S.' entry played during the 1942–43 season but were mothballed afterwards. There were notable exceptions such as Yale and Dartmouth, who continued to play through the duration of the war, but many teams returned to the ice for an abbreviated 1945–46 season. One benefit to college hockey that resulted from the war was the G.I. Bill which helped returning servicemen pay for a college education. With a much larger student body and a resulting influx in cash, colleges were more able to afford to support an ice hockey team.
By 1947 college ice hockey was still a regional sport, being localized in the northeast and northern Midwest (with a few exceptions) but despite the low number of teams playing, the NCAA finally instituted a national tournament. At the start the tournament invited two participants from the two regions: east and west. The east region was loosely defined as any college east of the Pennsylvania-Ohio border with all other teams being lumped into the west region. The tournament was held at the Broadmoor World Arena for the first ten years. Partially due to a lack of competition, Michigan was invited to participate in each of the first ten tournaments and won six National Championships in that time.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association has conducted national championships for men's ice hockey since 1948, and women's ice hockey since 2001.
U.S. college hockey players must be deemed eligible for NCAA competition by the NCAA Eligibility Center, a process that examines a student-athlete's academic qualifications and amateur status. Players who have participated in the Canadian Hockey League or any professional hockey league are considered ineligible.
Men's U.S. college hockey is a feeder system to the National Hockey League. As of the 2010–11 season, 30 percent of NHL players (a total of 294) had U.S. college hockey experience prior to turning professional, an increase of 35 percent from the previous 10 years. That percentage has been maintained the past three seasons, with a record 301 NHL players coming from college hockey in 2011–12.
One hundred thirty-eight colleges and universities sponsor men's ice hockey in the NCAA's three divisions.
NCAA Division I will have 60 ice hockey teams as of the 2021–22 season, one fewer than in 2020–21. Of these schools, 20 are Division II or III athletic programs that "play up" to Division I in hockey, and 16 of the full Division I members are in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Seven of the FBS schools compete in the Big Ten Conference; six are full conference members and the seventh is a single-sport member.
The NCAA Division I Championship is a 16-team, single-elimination tournament, divided into four, 4-team regional tournaments. The winner of each regional advances to the Frozen Four to compete for the national championship. For many years, 5 teams earned automatic bids through winning conference tournament championships, while 11 earned at-large berths through a selection committee. With the addition of the Big Ten hockey conference for the 2013–14 season, the tournament now features 6 automatic qualifiers, and 10 at-large bids. The ranking system that is used to determine the at-large teams is known as the Pairwise Rankings, which uses a number of ranking factors to create a scoring system for all NCAA Division I teams.
In 2020–21, 61 schools were initially set to compete in Division I, with 59 of them organized into six conferences, plus two teams (Arizona State and LIU) playing as independent programs with no conference affiliation. Several of these 61 schools, most notably all six Ivy League members that field varsity men's teams, chose not to compete in that season due to COVID-19 concerns.
As of the upcoming 2021–22 season, the conferences are expected to be:
- Atlantic Hockey Association
- Big Ten Conference
- Central Collegiate Hockey Association
- ECAC Hockey
- Hockey East Association
- National Collegiate Hockey Conference
The CCHA, the revival of a league that had operated from 1971 to 2013 before folding in the aftermath of major conference realignment, initially consisted of seven schools that had previously competed in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. These schools had announced in late 2019 that they would leave the WCHA after the 2020–21 season, and subsequently announced that they would operate as a new CCHA. In July 2020, the new CCHA added an eighth member in St. Thomas, a Twin Cities institution set to make an unprecedented move from NCAA Division III directly to Division I.
As for the WCHA, it is now all but certain to disband its men's division. Not only has the aforementioned group of seven schools left to form the revived CCHA, but an eighth men's member, Alaska Anchorage, announced it would drop hockey (plus two other sports) after the 2020–21 school year. Still another men's member, Alabama–Huntsville (UAH), had also filed papers to leave after the 2020–21 season, then dropped the sport entirely due to fallout from COVID-19, and soon reinstated the sport following a successful fundraising drive led by UAH hockey alumni. The other remaining WCHA men's member is Alaska, representing the Fairbanks campus of the University of Alaska.
The Ivy League recognizes ice hockey champions for both sexes, but it does not sponsor the sport; it instead uses the results of regular-season ECAC Hockey matches involving two Ivy League schools to extrapolate an Ivy champion (all six Ivy League schools that sponsor varsity hockey do so for both men and women, and compete in the ECAC). The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference sponsored D-I men's hockey, but dropped the sport in 2003.
The next addition to D-I men's ice hockey will be the aforementioned St. Thomas. After the end of the 2020–21 school year, St. Thomas will be expelled from its longtime D-III home of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference due to perceptions by most other league members that it had grown too strong for the conference. The Summit League, a D-I all-sports league that does not sponsor hockey, soon issued the school an invitation, and worked with the school to obtain a waiver of an NCAA rule that would have otherwise prevented a direct move to D-I. Shortly after St. Thomas' D-I move was confirmed, it was unveiled as the eighth member of the revived CCHA.
Prior to St. Thomas, the most recent addition to D-I men's ice hockey had been LIU, which added the sport in 2020–21. While LIU played its first season as an independent, it was a scheduling partner of Atlantic Hockey. Before this announcement, some media outlets had reported that LIU had sought membership in that league.
In May 2021, Tennessee State University announced that it was conducting a feasibility study on the possible addition of varsity men's and women's hockey teams. Should TSU add either team, it would become the first historically black university to field a varsity hockey team. The study is partially backed by the NHL and the Nashville Predators, located in TSU's home city.
The NCAA does not currently sponsor a championship in Division II, as there is only one conference that currently sponsors hockey, the Northeast-10 Conference. The NCAA conducted a Division II national championship from 1978 to 1984 and also from 1993 to 1999.
The 84 programs in Division III hockey are part of 10 conferences:
- Commonwealth Coast Conference
- Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference
- Middle Atlantic Conference
- Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference
- New England Hockey Conference
- New England Small College Athletic Conference
- Northern Collegiate Hockey Association
- State University of New York Athletic Conference
- United Collegiate Hockey Conference
- Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference
The NCAA has conducted a Division III national championship since 1984. The current championship format is a 12-team (formerly 11-team), single-elimination bracket.
There are 93 colleges and universities that sponsor women's ice hockey in two divisions: National Collegiate and Division III.
As of the upcoming 2021–22 season, 41 teams are expected to compete in the National Collegiate division (commonly referred to as Division I). All of them play in five conferences:
- College Hockey America (CHA)
- ECAC Hockey
- Hockey East
- New England Women's Hockey Alliance (NEWHA)
- Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA)
The women's side of the WCHA is all but certain to continue in operation despite the likely demise of the conference's men's side in 2021; the conference has announced the entry of a new women's member in 2021.
The National Collegiate championship is an 8-team, single-elimination tournament to determine the national champion.
The Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award is awarded annually by USA Hockey to the top player in women's Division I hockey.
The most recent school to add varsity women's hockey at this level is LIU. In September 2018, the school's Brooklyn campus announced it would add women's ice hockey for the 2019–20 season, joining the fledgling NEWHA. Shortly thereafter, the university announced it would merge the Division I Brooklyn athletic program with the Division II program of its Post campus effective in July 2019. The new athletic program, later unveiled as the LIU Sharks, inherited Brooklyn's Division I membership; the hockey team joined the NEWHA on the announced schedule.
Two schools will begin National Collegiate play in the near future, with a third potentially adding the sport in the indefinite future:
- The aforementioned St. Thomas (Minnesota) will join the WCHA, which also worked with the Summit League in the school's bid to move directly from D-III.
- Stonehill will add the sport in 2022–23 and join the NEWHA. The school had originally planned to start play as a NEWHA member in 2021, but decided to wait a year because of recruiting restrictions brought on by COVID-19.
- As noted previously, Tennessee State is conducting a feasibility study on adding men's and women's hockey.
Robert Morris, which dropped men's hockey after the 2020–21 season, also dropped women's hockey at the same time. This leaves CHA with only five members, one fewer than the six needed to maintain its automatic NCAA tournament berth. The conference will have two years to bring its membership back to the required six members before losing its automatic bid.
The newest National Collegiate conference is the NEWHA, formed in 2017 as a scheduling alliance between the then-current National Collegiate independents. It formally organized as a conference in 2018 and received NCAA recognition in 2019.
There are 67 teams in Division III in eight conferences:
- Colonial Hockey Conference
- ECAC West
- Middle Atlantic Conference
- Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference
- New England Hockey Conference
- New England Small College Athletic Conference
- Northern Collegiate Hockey Association
- Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference
The Division III championship is a 9-team, single-elimination tournament to determine the national champion.
University hockey teams in Canada compete in leagues as part of U Sports, the national governing body for Canadian university athletics (in Canadian English, the term "college" is reserved for schools that would be called "junior", "community", or "technical" colleges in the U.S.). U Sports sponsors both men's and women's hockey.
Like in the United States, teams compete in athletic conferences based on geographical locations of the schools. Unlike the NCAA, U Sports does not award players with athletic scholarships, resulting in a lack of divisional separation such as found between NCAA divisions. Individual conferences hold postseason tournaments, followed by the round-robin U Sports championship tournament in late March.
In 2015, a group of member schools in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) began working to add the sport to the organization. The NAIA originally sponsored a men's ice hockey championship from 1968 to 1984 when it was discontinued due to many of the schools with teams leaving the NAIA for the NCAA. A few NAIA schools continued to sponsor the sport as varsity-club teams in the ACHA. A growing number of schools have added ice hockey as members of the ACHA over the past 5–10 years. In 2016, several NAIA institutions that sponsor men's ice hockey teams announced the formation of a coaches association and a new division for NAIA ice hockey program to begin play during the 2017–18 season. In 2017, The Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference (WHAC) became the first current conference in the NAIA to offer the sport and host a conference championship.
The American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) is the sanctioning body for non-NCAA or "club" ice hockey in the United States. The organization provides structure, regulations and promotes the quality of collegiate ice hockey.
Teams separated into three men's and two women's divisions with over 300 teams from across the United States. The recruiting process, rules and regulations, and player eligibility standards parallel that of NCAA Division III. Sometimes, ACHA and NCAA will play games against each other to complete each of their season schedules.
Outdoor games in the 21st century
- Cold War – October 6, 2001, Michigan vs. Michigan State (Spartan Stadium)
- Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic – February 11, 2006, Ohio State vs. Wisconsin (Lambeau Field)
- Frozen Fenway 2010 – Boston University vs. Boston College, and Northeastern University vs. New Hampshire (Fenway Park)
- Culver's Camp Randall Hockey Classic – February 6, 2010, Michigan vs. Wisconsin (Camp Randall Stadium)
- The Big Chill at the Big House – December 11, 2010 held at Michigan Stadium set the hockey attendance record when 104,173 fans watched Michigan defeat Michigan State, 5–0.
- Frozen Diamond Classic – January 15, 2012, Michigan defeated Ohio State University, 4–1, at Progressive Field in Cleveland, OH.
- Frozen Fenway 2012 – Northeastern University vs. Boston College, Union College vs. Harvard University, and Maine vs. New Hampshire (Fenway Park)
- North Dakota and Omaha played in an outdoor game at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska on February 9, 2013, with North Dakota winning, 5–2.
- Hockey City Classic – February 17, 2013, Notre Dame vs. Miami University, and Minnesota vs. Wisconsin (Soldier Field)
- Frozen Frontier – December 14, 2013, Rochester Institute of Technology vs. Niagara University
- 2013 Great Lakes Invitational – December 27–28, 2013 – The annual Detroit-based holiday tournament was moved outdoors from its traditional location at Joe Louis Arena to Comerica Park. The field consisted of Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech and Western Michigan.
- Hockey City Classic – January 17, 2014, Minnesota vs. Ohio State (TCF Bank Stadium)
- Bowling Green State University hosted Robert Morris University in an outdoor game at Fifth Third Park in Toledo, Ohio, on January 3, 2015. The game ended in a 2–2 draw.
- Hockey City Classic – February 7, 2015, Miami University vs. Western Michigan, and Michigan vs. Michigan State (Soldier Field)
- The Battle on Blake – February 20, 2016, University of Denver Pioneers vs. Colorado College Tigers as part of the Battle for the Gold Pan at Coors Field.
- Robert Morris hosted Niagara in an outdoor game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on February 26, 2017. The Colonials won the game 5–1. Admission was free of charge.
- Hockey Day Minnesota 2022 – On January 22, 2022, Minnesota State is scheduled to host St. Thomas at Blakeslee Stadium, normally home to Minnesota State football.
- January 8, 2010 Northeastern vs New Hampshire Fenway Park
- Culver's Camp Randall Hockey Classic February 6, 2010 Bemidji State vs Wisconsin Camp Randall Stadium
- Greater Rochester Frozen Frontier, December 14, 2013 Clarkson vs RIT Frontier Field
- Hockey City Classic January 17, 2014, Minnesota vs Minnesota State (TCF Bank Stadium)
Longest-running annual international rivalry
A rivalry between the United States Military Academy (Army) Black Knights and the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) Paladins resulted in an annual West Point Weekend hockey game. The series was first played in 1923, and was claimed to be the longest-running annual international sporting event in the world. Army and RMC played continuously from 1949 until 2007, when scheduling conflicts forced the academies to abandon the scheduled game. The game was not played from 2007-2010, nor in 2012, but has been held annually since.  The most recent edition in 2020 saw RMC defeat West Point 3-2 in overtime, RMC's first win in the series since 2002.
Leagues outside Northern America
In the United Kingdom, college hockey league is operated by BUIHA (British Universities Ice Hockey Association). It was founded in 2003 and currently includes 23 clubs across the UK.
- Battle for the Gold Pan Colorado based college hockey rivalry
- Beanpot (ice hockey) Boston-area college hockey tournament
- College athletics
- Great Lakes Invitational
- List of defunct college hockey teams
- List of ice hockey leagues#College
- List of NCAA Division I ice hockey programs
- NCAA Men's Ice Hockey Championship
- National Collegiate Women's Ice Hockey Championship
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A lot of weird games between a lot of scrub teams probably were played on ice before Jan. 19, 1898, but on that day modern intercollegiate hockey competition was officially born
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credited with being the father of hockey in the United States
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