Her senior year at Niagara was magical in many ways. Steph Romain was one of the original members of the Purple Eagles women's hockey team, part of the first senior class. Women's collegiate hockey had been mostly a small, elite club, reserved for established teams in New England and Minnesota. But 10 years ago, Niagara helped change all that.
Romain and her teammates huddled around a computer in the players' lounge at Dwyer Arena. Niagara had risen to national prominence, ranked as high as No. 2 in 2002. Yet its postseason fate was uncertain. The NCAA had recently started offering a national championship in women's hockey and the field was limited to just four teams, all at-large berths.
Before ESPN got into the game, the women's Frozen Four participants were announced by a glorified conference call. And when Niagara's name was announced, the room erupted in a frenzied state of cheers and hugs and chants of "Frozen Four."
After only four years, Niagara had arrived on the national hockey scene.
"I could have chosen other schools to play for instead of one [Niagara] that I had never heard of," Romain said. "But [then-head coach] Margot [Page] recruited me to play at NU and we had a goal of reaching the Frozen Four in four years. We took that very seriously. We wanted to make a name for the school. We used the phrase, 'leave a legacy' and I truly felt we had done that until I received the email from Ed."
That email was from Niagara athletic director Ed McLaughlin, sent to alumni of the women's hockey program. Ten years after that magical run to the Frozen Four, Niagara's administration decided that women's hockey was not part of its long-term vision. In March, the school announced that it was immediately dropping women's hockey to increase its financial commitment to women's lacrosse. Niagara announced it also would add an outdoor women's track and field team.
The blow was devastating to the hockey alumni.
"Honestly, when I first heard it, it was almost like somebody had died," said Allison Coomey, one of the seniors on the Frozen Four team and a former assistant coach with Niagara. Coomey now is part of the coaching staff at Boston University. "That kind of feeling is difficult to explain. You feel like part of your identity is gone when you hear that kind of news. I never thought it would happen to a program where I was a player."
"I actually thought it was a joke at first because I didn't think it was possible that Niagara University would drop a sport with such a great facility and program that was capable of someday winning an NCAA championship," said Ashley Riggs, a former member of the Canadian Olympic development team and a 2009 graduate of Niagara. "My reaction was shock, and sadness. My life was based around Niagara University for so long, and I feel as though the team was sidelined and now the players, coaches and alumni have no idea how to feel about where they fit in at the university."
Truth be told, some never felt they fit into the university. Page, tapped as the first head coach for the women's hockey program, said she never felt totally supported by the larger Niagara community, dating back to 1998 when the women's hockey program began there.
"I remember being at an alumni event one of my first years at Niagara," Page said. "An older man came up to me and said 'So you're the girls hockey coach?' I said 'I am' and he said to me, 'You're not going to be successful. This is a men's basketball school.' I thought 'oh, great.'
"A few people totally embraced women's hockey and really wanted to make it happen, but I never felt like the powers that be really wanted us to be successful from the very start."
The best season for Niagara was that 2001-02 Frozen Four year when the program went 26-8-2. It never repeated that success but after winning just nine and six games the last two years of Page's tenure (her contract was not renewed by the school after the 2008-09 season) the team started to find its legs with 12-, 11- and 10-win seasons.
Niagara's best attendance came in the 2005-06 season, averaging 419 fans in 14 home games. This past season, they averaged 253 over 17 home games.
Attendance is driven by a combination of factors, including the quality of the team and the commitment of the marketing department.
"After our success in 2002 I pushed to have some marketing dollars invested," Page said. "We graduated a lot of players so we were going to take a bump, but I thought we could make a push off this and get some people in the stands. We went to the Frozen Four. We got great coverage. Everyone in Western New York knows about us now, let's make a push. I just got the same old, same old."
There have been fits and starts as women's ice hockey became an NCAA sponsored sport at the Division I level in 2001. One or two moves creates a bigger ripple in the smaller pond, and the women's hockey pond numbered 34 programs this year. In 2003-04, Findlay dropped its women's program. Wayne State bowed out of the sport after last season.
Still there has been growth. The NCAA expanded the women's tournament field to eight teams for the 2004-05 season — that was in response to the growth of participating schools from 12 in 1996 to 30 in 2003-04 — and began granting automatic berths to conferences with a minimum of six members. The ECAC, Hockey East and WCHA all have automatic bids.
But Niagara's now former conference, College Hockey America (CHA) had not been able to maintain enough membership to apply for an automatic qualifier until now. With stable programs Robert Morris and Mercyhurst, the CHA added Syracuse a few years ago. Penn State and Lindenwood are scheduled to come into the league and RIT announced it was bumping up its women's program to Division I status. Had Niagara stayed, that would have made for a seven-team league and the stability the NCAA is looking for.
Niagara dropping women's hockey, on the heels of Wayne State dropping its team, was also a blow for sport.
"It's difficult to be in this profession and see this happen two years in a row, especially in the same conference," said Allison Rutledge, a second team All America goaltender at Niagara in 2007 and currently an assistant coach at Robert Morris. "It makes growing the sport difficult and makes recruiting difficult. Kids looking at a school begin to wonder if there's a possibility it could be dropped."
Former members of the program voiced two major frustrations. First, they wished alumni had been brought into the process. If they had known women's hockey was in danger of being cut, they would tried to save it. Second, they were devastated for the current players and felt that dropping the program in March did not give players, or current coaches, enough time to find opportunities at other schools.
For McLaughlin, dropping women's hockey wasn't an easy decision. McLaughlin didn't want to create anxiety around what might or might not happen during the course of a six- to eight-month process as Niagara evaluated all its women's sports programs, particularly after the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference decided to elevate men's and women's lacrosse to a core sport. That meant Niagara, which sponsors only women's lacrosse, needed to greatly increase its financial commitment to keep the sport in compliance with MAAC standards.
The university concluded that dropping women's hockey made sense from a financial standpoint and, according to McLaughlin, announced its decision shortly after it was made. To offset that loss of women's athletic opportunities, the school added outdoor women's track and field, which also has the potential to help the school address diversity issues in its student population.
"It's not as if we knew for months," said McLaughlin of the decision to cut women's hockey. "Literally, within days we told the players. It wasn't as if I knew this in February and was holding on to it."
The decision directly affects around 20 Niagara student-athletes. The school is giving them a blanket release, meaning they can transfer and be immediately eligible to play at any school. Those who decide to stay at Niagara will have their scholarships honored as long as they maintain academic standards.
"It's a difficult time but I think the girls have handled it well," said Niagara coach Josh Sciba, who is still deciding what his next professional move will be. "It was pretty overwhelming at first. I think the girls were in a state of shock and some are still a bit sour. But now, we see what we can be thankful for and cherish the last moments [of the semester].
"I did think the program was going in the right direction. We raised a lot of money in our Pink the Rink games. We had the highest GPA this program has ever had this fall semester. There were a lot of bright points and the culture was one of the best of any team I've ever been around."
The demise of the program leaves current players with decisions to make. Some are electing to stay at Niagara, where their scholarships will be honored as they complete their degree work.
Others, like East Amherst native Kelsey Welch, are transferring. It's becoming routine for Welch, who transferred to Niagara after a year at Syracuse to be closer to home. Next year, she will play at Mercyhurst.
"It's one of those things you never think will happen to you," Welch said. "You never think the program you're playing for won't be there anymore."
Welch has a deeper appreciation for the loss of the Niagara program. As a Western New Yorker, she spent her youth hockey days looking up to the Purple Eagles.
"I grew up around here and went to Niagara hockey camps and remember idolizing the girls," she said. "You looked at that and thought how cool it would be to go to Niagara and play hockey. They were like the NHL to a girl."
Losing the area's only Division I women's hockey program has the potential for a trickle down effect.
"I think it's very disappointing," said John Cleary, director of girls hockey for the Buffalo Bisons youth organization. "When you have a Division I program that was as good as Niagara's and was competitive at the highest levels, it gave something local for the high school girls to see. Now, they have to travel further to get to Division I teams.
"There are a lot of recreation games out of those [Dwyer] rinks. A lot of time, girls would be there for a game and walk into the other rink and see the Niagara team practicing or playing. They really looked up to those players."
Four area girls teams advanced to the final four in their respective USA Hockey National Tournament this winter. The Buffalo Bisons Tier I 16U, Buffalo Regals Tier II 14U and West Seneca Wings Tier II 12U all went to the championship game. The Buffalo Bisons Tier I 14U lost in the national semifinal.
While the number of girls playing in leagues has increased over the last few years, so too has the quality. The correlation between having a Division I program at Niagara and success at the Western New York youth level is difficult to prove, but anecdotally it has some merit.
"I grew up in Syracuse and we played teams in the Buffalo and Rochester area and we always went to the national tournaments," Coomey said. "Now, it's funny that the team that goes to nationals every year is from Buffalo. It's interesting to see the development that's going on in Buffalo and Ontario. And it has to help when they have something to aspire to."
It's not just the girls who are losing a team filled with role models. Inspiration can easily cross gender lines.
"My senior year, I was at a Sabres game with my two brothers," Romain recalled. "We were in the lobby waiting for a friend to arrive when a young boy who was about 10 years old approached me. He said to me 'Are you Steph Romain, captain of the Niagara women's hockey team?'
"Trying to act cool in front of my brothers, I responded 'Yes, I am. Hi, how are you?' He then told me that he was a big fan and that he thought our team was going to win the national championship that year. He then asked me to autograph his NU women's hockey ministick that he had brought with him to the Sabres game. My brothers still tell people that story. I just think about it from time to time and feel proud to have played at Niagara."
Still in the game / Members of the 2002 championship team coaching today
Linda Groff-Mroz: Amherst, NY
*High school field hockey, ice hockey and softball coach.
*Director of girls' house league hockey program for Buffalo Regals organization.
Candice Moxley: Columbus, Ohio
*Assistant Coach, Women's Ice Hockey at The Ohio State University
Allison Coomey: Newton, Mass.
*Assistant Coach, Women's Hockey at Boston University