Michigan's women's hockey team plays at the club level, and it faces significant hurdles to reach varsity status. Photo courtesy of Mike Dickie Photography

The University of Michigan is known to many as a hockey school — a men’s hockey school, that is. The team is headed to the NCAA Frozen Four with the No. 1 overall seed. 

On the same day that the men’s tournament bracket was released, the Ohio State varsity women’s ice hockey team won its first-ever NCAA championship. You might find yourself wondering: Where’s Michigan’s women’s hockey team? 

The answer: Playing at the club level and paying thousands of dollars to do so. 

Despite Michigan’s massively successful men’s hockey program — and the state of Michigan’s reputation as a hockey haven — there’s no NCAA Division I women’s ice hockey team at the University of Michigan. There isn’t even one in the entire state. 

Michigan is the definition of a hockey school. The antics of the raucous Children of Yost are some of the most notable features of Michigan’s hockey culture. If there’s a home game, Yost Ice Arena will be filled with students wearing maize, screaming, brandishing cones and heckling opposing players. It’s a major part of campus life.

“Everybody’s itching for more hockey,” Engineering junior Thomas Kelleher said. “There would definitely be support if a women’s team were to make varsity, or if the club team were to be fully elevated.”

And Michigan has the pieces to start building, given the state’s hockey culture.

The state of Michigan has seven men’s Division I teams and produces many of the best male and female hockey players in the nation. But a lot of those talented female players are forced into a difficult decision. Do they want to stay in-state and play at the Division III or club level, or go out of state to play Division I?

“Growing up playing women’s hockey on the East Coast… we always had tournaments, and I came to Michigan probably three or four times a year to play hockey,” junior Miki Rubin, a forward on the Michigan women’s club team, said. “It’s just disheartening because a lot of people that live in Michigan that grow up dreaming of coming to the University of Michigan are not able to because they can’t pursue their dream of playing hockey.”

Calling the women’s team a club team is a bit of a misnomer. While the team is under the umbrella of club sports at the University of Michigan, the team competes in Division I in the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) which brands itself as an alternative to the NCAA for hockey, more than simply a club league. 

This leads to a lot of discrepancies among teams, even within the same league. Of the 12 teams in the Central Collegiate Women’s Hockey Association (CCWHA), seven receive significant university funding, while five receive none. Michigan’s team falls into the latter category.

Photo courtesy of Jaime Crawford/JC Sports Photography

The discrepancies don’t stop at the money. Some teams, like the women’s ice hockey team at the University of Michigan—Dearborn, are considered a varsity team by their university. They’re fully funded, listed as a varsity team on the college’s athletics website, have priority for scheduling games and can influence admissions. Michigan’s team can do none of that.

“We don’t have any recruiting capabilities,” Michigan coach Jenna Trubiano said. “Everybody that contacts me has to get in on their own. And Michigan’s getting more and more selective each year.”

When Trubiano does recruit, the same questions arise.

“If I go out to recruit, and I’m wearing Michigan’s hockey stuff, everybody approaches me like ‘Is Michigan getting a DI team?’ ” Trubiano said. “No. But that’s the number one question that I get.”

And it’s been a question since 1994, when the team was founded. The 1998 Olympics were going to be the first to ever have women’s hockey, and momentum around the sport was growing. Seeking to capitalize, the club team made an initial push for varsity status during the 1996-97 school year. 

The University was looking to promote two teams, one men’s and one women’s, to varsity status. Women’s hockey was on that shortlist — and seemingly high on it.

The team didn’t make the cut.

“It was a brutal lesson in terms of bureaucracy and administration,” Sue McDowell, CCWHA commissioner and one of the original founders of the Michigan women’s club hockey team, said. “It got referred to a Financial Committee. And it never came out of the Financial Committee to the Regents for request. What came out of the Financial Committee was men’s soccer and women’s water polo.”

The reason? Money. It would cost the University far less to support a varsity women’s water polo team than a women’s hockey team, so the decision was made. 

And today, the hockey team’s biggest challenge remains funding.

Last year, the team’s expenses came out to about $57,000, and that’s cheaper than normal due to decreased travel because of COVID-19. The biggest expense is ice time at Yost, a facility owned and operated by the University. Renting ice for games and practices comes out to around $30,000 every year. 

Only $500 of that cost — less than one percent of the team’s total expenses — comes directly from the University, through club sports. 

Around $7,000 in funding comes from the Student Organization Funding Committee, part of an initiative of the university’s Central Student Government that distributes money to student organizations. But that money is not guaranteed, and the team has to apply for it on a weekly basis. 

The rest of the money comes from player dues, donations and fundraising efforts — something the team spends a lot of time doing. 

“It definitely is a grind,” junior Annabel Levinson, the team’s treasurer and a defenseman said. “We all love playing, so it’s worth it to us. But (there are) definitely a lot of roadblocks we have to jump through just to do it.”

Having to pay for ice at their own university doesn’t sit right with the team.

“It doesn’t feel good when you’re on a team, you go to a university and they tell you, ‘You actually have to pay for your ice because we’re not going to help you with that,’ ” Levinson said. “It feels a little bit less like our rink.”

The team doesn’t have priority at Yost either. It’s not uncommon for them to end up having to play a game at a backup rink in a nearby city such as Canton.

And the team’s challenges aren’t confined to funding. 

“People find out I play hockey, a lot of the reaction is, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know there was a women’s team,’ ” junior Sophie Williams, vice president, social media chair and a forward on the team, said. “I think a lot of that comes from just not having very large university support.”

Beyond funding, awareness and paying for ice at their own university, the team faces many other logistical difficulties, which, when coupled with the lack of collaboration with the university, can cause serious challenges. 

“We don’t have a locker room at Yost,” Trubiano said. “We’ve asked for closet space to keep our gear. All fully-funded teams that we compete against have their own locker room.”

Players carry their equipment to practice and have to store their gear in a room they might share with a roommate. Players might leave gear in a hallway or laundry room to air out and keep the odor away, which led to a player having some of her gear stolen from her dorm earlier this year.

Safety is also a significant concern. The team is required to have a trainer present at all games — another thing that they must fund themselves. 

When it comes to transportation to and from away games, the team is on their own once again. They often rent university vans and drive themselves through potentially hazardous winter conditions — which caused a, thankfully minor, accident earlier this year.

“I feel like (the University is) just cutting corners,” Rubin said. “I don’t know how expensive renting a bus is, but I feel like it shouldn’t come at a cost to our safety.”

To help the team stay competitive with the way hockey is organized right now, the university would have to step in. With low admission rates and players having to fund themselves, talented players are going to continue to choose — and be forced — to look elsewhere. As a result, women’s hockey at the university might be playing catch-up forever. 

Photo courtesy of Jaime Crawford/JC Sports Photography

And right now, it looks like it will be a while until they’re considered again.

“We regularly review program offerings and student support systems in consultation with the university and surrounding communities,” associate athletic director Kurt Svoboda wrote in response to an email request for comment. “We have not made any recommendations to alter our varsity sport offerings at this time.” 

And while some might question why things like $41 million scoreboard renovations are approved while women’s hockey suffers alone, the argument for women’s hockey goes back to opportunity.

“(There are) a multitude of sports at our university that do not make money,” Levinson said. “The goal is to close the equity gap between more opportunities for men to play ice hockey in college than for women.”

Women’s hockey is a growing sport. The USA vs Canada gold medal match in the 2022 Beijing Olympics was the second most-watched hockey game in the US since 2019 — men’s or women’s. And in the Big Ten, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin offer varsity women’s hockey.

“Giving young girls and women in the state of Michigan an opportunity to dream about playing hockey at one of the best schools in the country is an amazing opportunity that the University of Michigan has at its fingertips,” Trubiano said. “Other Big Ten women’s programs have proved that it’s possible.”

The team recognizes the challenges of bringing awareness to their struggles.

“If I were to walk into a boardroom with members of the athletic department, my fingers would be crossed that somebody has a daughter that plays ice hockey,” Trubiano said. “Because although it is such a unique sport for girls to play, they would understand that in the state of Michigan, what’s the goal? You go play out of state.”

At this point, with things still at an impasse, there’s likely only one thing that would lead to the formation of a varsity women’s hockey team at the University of Michigan: a significant donor coming in with the desire to fund the entire program. 

“There’s no hatred, there’s no bias, there’s no ‘we don’t like hockey,’ there’s nothing like that,” McDowell said. “It’s truly going to be a heck of an expensive thing to put on. … I truly believe that if somebody came forward and said, ‘I just won billions and I’d like to make sure the University of Michigan has that varsity women’s team,’ they would find a way to put it on.” 

But in the absence of that angel investor, if the University doesn’t want to seek out the funds itself, it can still do more to support the team. 

The team’s desires can be summarized in a pretty simple way: Let us play, and in the meantime, don’t make us pay.

And for now, even those simple demands seem to be too much for the University to palate.