EDINA, Minn. — In late July, Jennifer Flowers will take over as the fourth commissioner in the 20-year history of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association women’s league. She comes to the league at a time where there is strength on the ice, but fiscal concerns about the health of some programs, and the prospect of a few new programs on the horizon.
In Part 2 of a three-part series on the state of women’s hockey, Flowers spoke to The Rink Live about the institutional diversity in the women’s WCHA, the roots of her interest in the job, and how changes on the men’s side of the WCHA may or may not affect women’s hockey.
Your league is incredibly diverse as far as membership, with a small enrollment, small budget school like Bemidji State competing head-to-head with a school like Ohio State, which has a large enrollment and perhaps the largest athletic budget in college sports. Is there a parity there?
That’s something I’m excited to get to know more about, and those were some of the questions that I had while going through this process. I haven't had the chance yet to really dig in, but what was very clear to me throughout the process is that all seven (member schools) are focused on the same goals. Regardless of resources, the commitment to elevate the game of women’s hockey is the same. I don’t know if parity is the right word anywhere in college athletics. Everyone has different challenges and opportunities... the overarching commitment to women’s hockey is what defines us all and keeps us all on the same playing field. The goal and the purpose behind each of them is the same, so in that regard there’s parity.
How did this process work? You had been with the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference for several years. Where did your interest in the WCHA start?
I probably wouldn’t have known anything about the job if not for Heather Weems, the athletic director at St. Cloud State. One nice thing for me in the job and with my background in the NSIC is that four of the teams competing in the women’s WCHA (Bemidji State, Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota State Mankato and St. Cloud State) are current NSIC institutions, so the working relationship with those four is incredibly strong. So Heather reached out to let me know the position was open and encouraged me to take a look at it. I diligently did some research and had a lot of conversations with people that I trust to just understand the dynamics of the men’s league and the women’s league and hockey in general. I tried to diligently understand what the job was and what the opportunities would be with the job. I liked the idea of one conference, seven teams, one sport, and really having more of an opportunity to directly impact female student athletes. That and a familiarity with some of the league was a definitely a drawing point.
There’s an opportunity to grow a little bit, to align myself with different institutions, very nationally well-regarded institutions in the three Division I schools, and then not having to move my family. There were so many things that, as it started to play out, it started to make more sense. I think very honestly as the conversations got longer and as more research was done and then throughout the interview process, I got more and more excited as we went through it. I’m not sure that when I started I really knew what the opportunities were, and as I continued to get through it and I was able to meet more of the people and the coaches, it’s hard not to be excited about working with these great people.
Have you had any ‘what have I gotten myself into?’ moments yet? (Note: In late June it was announced that seven of the 10 current members of the men’s WCHA are exploring leaving the conference.)
I don’t think so. Going back to the announcement on the men’s side, that was a little bit of a surprise. But my perspective is that there’s opportunity in every challenge. Does it make you blink twice? Maybe, but it definitely didn’t dissuade me. I’m really excited to get started and I’ll be on everyone’s campus in the next six weeks and have a chance to spend some time with the coaches and the student-athletes to get a better feel for how each institution does operate, does tick and what’s unique about them as I work to figure out how we all fit together. I’m still just as excited today as I was six weeks ago.
What’s the best advice you’ve gotten so far?
The best advice I’ve gotten is to trust myself, trust my instincts and know that I can do it.
You’re also a parent. Do either of your children play hockey, or have they expressed interest as a result of your new job? (Note: Flowers was a college volleyball player. Her husband Jontae has played professional basketball in Europe for several years.)
I will tell you there has been more hockey conversation (in our home) than we’ve ever had before. My daughter has been on ice skates — and I say ice skates, not hockey skates — a couple times. We’ve not explored the hockey route yet, however her best friend is really big into hockey, so she did say to me after the press conference, ‘Hey mom, do you think I could get onto Riley’s team and I could play hockey?’ The conversations are there. My husband is definitely a basketball guy, so he’s not pushing hockey at all, but we’ll see. We’ve tried to expose them to everything... but nobody is on the ice this summer, yet.
Tomorrow, in the conclusion of our three-part series on women’s college hockey, we look ahead to a pair of schools that are exploring the future of their hockey programs, and are potential candidates to add Division I women’s hockey in the future — the University of St. Thomas and Northern Michigan University.