Successful UST program to play Division I men’s hockey in 2021-22

It didn’t take long for the University of Saint Thomas men’s hockey team to find a new home. Two weeks after announcing it will jump from Division III to Division I next year, UST revealed its men’s team will join the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) for the 2021-22 season.

CCHA commissioner Don Lucia said the Tommies have been on his radar ever since he was appointed to the job last month. “It’s the perfect geographic footprint,” Lucia said. “It will take a few years for them to build their program. We’re investing in them as a league.”

Saint Thomas has been one of the most successful Division III men’s hockey programs in the country with more than 1,000 all-time wins, numerous MIAC championships and a pair of appearances in the NCAA championship game.

“It’s the perfect geographic footprint,” Lucia said. “It will take a few years for them to build their program. We’re investing in them as a league.”

If COVID-19 allows, the Tommies will play one final season in the MIAC this winter. They will then bid farewell to their old competitors to become the sixth Minnesota school to play Division I men’s hockey. They will join MSU Mankato, Bemidji State, Northern Michigan, Michigan Tech, Lake Superior State, Ferris State and Bowling Green for the first season of the new CCHA conference.

UST athletic director Phil Esten was at Penn State when that school made the move to Division I hockey. The team went 13-14 in its first season (2012-13). Four years later, it was in the NCAA tournament. “It was fun to see how quickly the program grew,” he said.

Saint Thomas has some different obstacles than what Penn State had to face. Its current home ice, Saint Thomas Arena in Mendota Heights, can only seat around 1,000 people. That works as a short-term fix, but Esten acknowledged something will eventually have to change.

 

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“We’re in the early stages of looking for locations,” he said when asked about facilities. Depending on the opponent, games could be scheduled in larger arenas from time to time.

A few key financial issues also remain. While some conference games can be handled with bus trips, UST may have to fly to others. Ferris State is located in Big Rapids, Michigan, 480 miles away. Bowling Green, Ohio, is 645 miles away. Lake Superior State is in Sault Saint Marie, Michigan, 530 miles away. Lucia hinted that some schedule accommodations could be made to ease travel burdens.

“We’re talking to coaches to see what works best—24, 26 or 28 games,” he said. “With COVID-19, the fact is there will be less west to east travel.”

There is also the matter of scholarships. Saint Thomas is expected to gradually work up to the NCAA maximum of 18 scholarships. Tuition there is currently $45,780.

Those are among the items that will be worked out in the upcoming months. As Esten said, “We’re still early in the process.”

—Dave Wright

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