British Columbia

B.C. players scramble after University of North Dakota cuts women's hockey

Kelowna's Breanna Berndsen and Penticton's Alyssa MacMillan were left in limbo after the University of North Dakota cut its high-profile women's hockey program.

Breanna Berndsen and Alyssa MacMillan loved playing for hockey-mad UND — then the school cut their team

B.C. players Alyssa MacMillan (left) and Breanna Berndsen (right) were both left in limbo after the University of North Dakota suddenly eliminated its women's hockey program. (Russ Hons/UND)

Last year, Alyssa MacMillan got an offer she couldn't refuse — a chance to play hockey at the University of North Dakota.

The Penticton native knew better than most what she was signing up for, having watched older brothers Mitch and Mark suit up with the men's Fighting Hawks (formerly Fighting Sioux) in hockey-mad Grand Forks.

F Alyssa MacMillan has agreed to join the Ottawa Gee Gees next season. (Russ Hons/UND)

"There were other opportunities and other schools, but I thought it would be cool to live in the states and have a different experience," said the first year forward.

Kelowna's Breanna Berndsen also could have taken her talents to one of any number of U.S. schools — Ivy League included. 

'NHL for women'

But the moment the University of North Dakota came calling, her mind was made up. 

"It's like the NHL for women," said the second year forward. "Its a hockey school. You come here for hockey."

The iconic "Ralph," Ralph Engelstad Arena, was home to the University of North Dakota women's hockey team until the school cut the program last month (North Dakota Athletics)

But not anymore. Not if you're female, anyway. 

Last month UND suddenly announced it was eliminating its Division 1 women's hockey program, turning a team that routinely produces Olympic-calibre players into a casualty of budget cuts.

In a blink of an eye, MacMillan, Berndsen and 20 teammates had their lives thrown into limbo.

Two steps back

The timing of the announcement seemed especially cruel, coming just days after the U.S. Women's Hockey team — led by UND grads Monique and Jocelyn Lamoureux — won its pay equity battle with USA Hockey. 

On campus, the players first heard the news through Twitter rumours that started swirling while they were practicing. It was hours later that the university got around to officially telling the team.

"It was super disrespectful how it happened," said Berndsen. "I can't even explain how it felt — like a slap in the face."

The hits kept coming. Because the decision was made so late in the year, players were left scrambling to figure out their futures. Options to join other college programs were slim with scholarships and roster spots for next season already accounted for.

"I did not expect to get cut and to have to figure out what I have to do next," said Berndsen. "I expected to play hockey here and here only."

Berndsen will continue her pre-med studies and hockey career at the University of Toronto starting in the fall. (Russ Hons/UND Athletics)

"It's been really emotional — a roller coaster for all of us with all of the girls trying to find new homes, knowing we're not going to be teammates and roommates anymore," said MacMillian.

As it turn out, Berndsen and MacMillian are two of the more fortunate. Although they would have preferred to play in a top tier NCAA program, last week both decided to play in Canada — Berndsen at the University of Toronto and MacMillian at Ottawa U.

Sense of betrayal

Still, there's a sense of betrayal and of bewilderment that a program as prominent as UND could just evaporate.

"It's definitely a step backwards for women's hockey, not only in NCAA but as a whole," said MacMillan. "If North Dakota can cut hockey, then anyone can."

UND president Mark Kennedy did offer to save the program if the team and its supporters could come up with a $60 million endowment — a proposal so unrealistic as to be laughable.

He then doubled down by calling women's hockey a "boutique sport" that "never should have been at UND."

Berndsen says with leadership like that there's little hope the program will be revived.

"President Kennedy seems like he does not want the program at all. He like his football and men's hockey so I don't think that our program will be coming back."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karin Larsen

@CBCLarsen

Karin Larsen is a former Olympian and award winning sports broadcaster who covers news and sports for CBC Vancouver.

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