By Jennifer Roback
Following one of Robert Morris’ most successful seasons on the ice for the women’s ice hockey team, the University has announced the cancellation of both NCAA nationally ranked men’s and women’s teams.
In a statement released by the school on May 26, they said that the decision was part of a strategic initiative by the university that is “intended to position the university to be amongst the most agile and professionally focused schools in the nation as it prepares for its upcoming 100th anniversary.”
Barely two months after winning conference championships, making RMU hockey history, and hosting the NCAA Final Four, the University made the decision to cancel both hockey programs, effective immediately, leaving many student-athletes confused.
“There was really no information given to us prior, we got an email saying there was an important zoom call and when we got on we weren’t allowed to have our cameras or microphones on. As soon as we were let in, the President was speaking at us, not even to us,” RMU redshirt junior Michaela Boyle recalls. “They stacked the call perfectly to where they didn’t give us time to speak.”
For women’s hockey, aspiring NCAA athletes already face many challenges when it comes to getting recruited, the main one being availability of teams. At the start of the 2020-21 season there were only 36 National Collegiate hockey teams throughout the United States. With the cancellation of RMU’s program there are now only 35.
“Coming from a small town in British Columbia, Canada, for female hockey players here [in Canada], it’s already extremely hard to get noticed by any NCAA team,” said RMU junior hockey player Wasyn Rice. “By eliminating another NCAA women’s hockey team, it’s not only making it harder but nearly impossible for some girls who want to go on and play collegiately.”
Rice also points out how the cancellation affects women’s hockey as a whole.
“The chances of getting recruited are already slim, getting rid of RMU’s program is affecting female hockey growth because there are such limited places we can go and I think this decision has a huge impact on female hockey in general, even taking away just one program,” said Rice.
Six days after the initial announcement, RMU President Chris Howard, speaking at a press conference, cited financial burden as one of their reasons to cancel the programs.
“Ice hockey has been our most expensive D-I sport, in part due to the low-ticket sales and limited donations, as well as having no access to things like guaranteed game opportunities, conference revenue or television contract payout,” Howard said.
RMU hockey has since set up a GoFundMe page with hopes to raise enough money to keep both the men’s and women’s programs alive. Despite Howard’s statements regarding limited donations, according to the GoFundMe page, RMU has donations of $427,000 from private donations and only three weeks after posting, it has been able to raise an additional $32,943 of their $2 million goal.
The campaign even got noticed by the GoFundMe team, who donated $500 as part of their Gives Back program, which donates to fundraisers that have touched them.
For athletes looking to transfer out of RMU to continue their collegiate careers, they are running into even more complications because of COVID-19. Boyle pointed out that with the COVID-19 pandemic granting an extra year of NCAA eligibility, many girls on the team are having trouble finding programs to transfer to since most rosters are already full.
“Some of our girls are choosing to transfer, but some of our other girls aren’t having a lot of luck finding places to transfer because not many teams have room,” Boyle said.
This decision also affects the other women’s hockey teams in the CHA league. With RMU cutting its program, that leaves five schools remaining and the NCAA tournament threshold for an automatic bid is six.
After suffering a team-wide COVID-19 outbreak back in November 2020, putting their season on hold, the RMU women were able to come back and finished their 2020-21 season 11-7-1 in conference play and walked away with the College Hockey America championship back in March, beating Syracuse University 1-0.
“After our semifinal win against Mercyhurst, we knew we were right there,” said Boyle. “We weren’t going to walk away without a win.”
This was the Colonial’s first CHA championship since 2017 and it qualified them for the 2021 NCAA tournament, where they went on to face the Northwestern Huskies. After three years of runner up finishes in the CHA tournament, this was the first appearance in an NCAA tournament for most of the girls.
Despite their 5-1 loss in the NCAA semifinals, RMU senior Emily Curlett made history for RMU by scoring the first NCAA tournament goal in Colonials history.
“The biggest thing for us was soaking it all in while we were there. Obviously with COVID it was different, but after our loss against Northeastern we were hungry for more and wanted to make the Final Four going into next season,” Boyle said.
Rice added that despite the score, RMU was able to stay neck and neck with the Huskies. Through March 20, 2021, RMU was ranked 3rd nationally in goals, behind #2 Wisconsin and #1 Northeastern and ranked 2ndbehind Northeastern for power play goals this season.
“Both the men’s and women’s teams are successful, which is unfortunate, and we felt like our success has meant nothing,” Boyle said. “We are successful on the ice and academically, and we all bring something different to the university and it just shows that none of that matters to them.”