D-I and D-III Overview

There are a lot of similarities between Division I and Division III levels of NCAA hockey. There are also quite a few differences. In our D-I and D-III Overview, we examine the how NCAA women’s ice hockey is organized, the differences between each divisions playing seasons, level of play, and how programs are usually run.

How NCAA Ice Hockey is Organized

The NCAA is the governing body for NCAA Women’s Ice Hockey… The NCAA or National Collegiate Athletic Association, is the governing body for all NCAA sanctioned sports. There are non-NCAA member colleges and universities that play organized women’s ice hockey at a ‘collegiate’ level under a group called The American Collegiate Hockey Association or ACHA. This group has no affiliation with the NCAA. You can find more about the ACHA under our ‘Links’ section HERE.

The NCAA has 3 division classifications – D-I, D-II, and D-III, each with its own rules and regulations. The NCAA sponsors Women’s Ice Hockey at the D-I and D-III levels, there is no D-II. D-I and D-III women’s ice hockey each have their own NCAA sport administration committee groups that are responsible for administering the sport under all NCAA rules. The rules govern playing seasons, officiating, recruiting rules, academic eligibility, financial aid, athletic scholarships, amateurism, and national championship tournament selection – just to name a few of the areas. Each division has NCAA sub-committees that monitor other areas such as student-athlete welfare, etc.

A lot of what the NCAA concerns itself with has to do with Football and Basketball, these are the sports that bring in the $ to the NCAA. There is a term the NCAA uses in its 450+ page D-I manual, ‘in all other sports except football and basketball’. And that is where hockey fits – outside Football and Basketball. Women’s hockey, as well as men’s, doesn’t have a sport specific NCAA oversight committee that is in charge of plotting the sports growth like basketball or football have. There are NCAA ice hockey committees for each division and each gender who select the national tournament participants as well as ensure the overall health and wellness of the sport. Additionally, 1 person at the NCAA per division, a ‘sport coordinator’ for lack of a better term, is responsible for making sure the sport in that division, runs itself well and helps tie in the sports stakeholders. This person works as a liaison between the NCAA Women’s Ice Hockey Committees and the American Hockey Coaches Association, which is the official coaches association the NCAA recognizes when it comes to matters of NCAA ice hockey. The AHCA, is a collection D-I and D-III women’s and men’s coaches, conferences and commissioners, on and off-ice officials, and athletic administrators at individual NCAA member institutions. It’s in these relationships between ice hockey’s NCAA division liaisons, the NCAA women’s ice hockey division committees, and the AHCA where the business of college hockey gets done.

What happened to D-II… Great question. There used to be D-II hockey with its own national championship but only on the men’s side. D-II men’s hockey existed from 1978 until 1999. There are not a lot of D-II athletic institutions where hockey is usually played. When NCAA hockey was first organized, schools that classified athletically as D-II, offered ice hockey and chose to play up at the D-I level, which schools could do back in the day.

Playing Seasons

Division I teams start earlier, play more games, and end later…

  • D-I teams start their season the first day of class or September 15th, whichever comes earlier. 8 hours per week of mandatory athletic activity is allowed until the first official day of practice.
  • The first official practice date for the 21-22 season is Sept. 17th. This is calculated using a formula the NCAA uses – the Monday after the 25th weekend from the previous National Championship.
  • Prior to Sept. 17, coaching staffs are allowed up to 4 hours of on-ice practice time. The additional 4 hours can split into strength & conditioning or required team meetings such as chalk-talks or video sessions.
  • Ivy League teams do not have the same schedule, they are only allowed 6 hours per week of countable mandatory athletic related activity from the first day of class or September 15th, whichever is earlier. 4 hours can be practice time on the ice with the coaching staff. The additional 2 hours can split into strength & conditioning or required team meetings such as chalk-talks or video sessions.
  • Sept. 17th (except the Ivy League) begins what is known as the ‘the regular season’. D-I teams are allowed a maximum 20 hours per week of mandatory athletically related activity with one required day off. Ivy League teams follow different rules set by The Ivy League. The first official practice date for Ivy League teams for the 21-22 season in women’s ice hockey is October 1st.
  • D-I teams may begin playing games (except for Ivy League teams) with outside competition prior to the Saturday of the 25th full weekend prior to the start of the National Collegiate Women’s Ice Hockey Championship. That is September 17th for the 21-22 season.
  • Ivy League teams are allowed their first contest for the 21-22 season on October 22nd. This is the 5th weekend prior to Thanksgiving – which is how the Ivy League calculates the first contest date in women’s hockey.
  • D-I teams may end their season on the last day of final exams for the academic year. No games may be played after the National Collegiate Championship game.
  • Ivy League teams must have a required 14-days off after the National Collegiate Championship Game before starting back up. Ivy League teams must end their seasons 7 days prior to the start of final exams.

Division I teams can play a maximum of 34 regular season games per year and are allowed 1 exhibition game or scrimmage. Conference playoff and NCAA tournament games are exempt from the 34-game allotment. Ivy league teams are allowed to play 29 regular season games and are allowed up to 2 exhibition or scrimmage games. Conference and NCAA tournament games are exempt from the Ivy 29-game allotment.

Division III teams start later, play less games and end their seasons earlier…

  • The D-III season begins on the 2nd Monday in October – which is the first official practice date. For the 21-22 season that date is October 11. Coaches are allowed to begin practicing with their teams at this time.
  • D-III teams in the NESCAC conference have a later practice start date (just like the Ivy League) which has historically been Nov. 1. For the 21-22 season, NESCAC teams will be allowed to being practicing October 15.
  • Prior to that date, all athletically related activity is voluntary and can not be made mandatory.
  • Once the first official practice date occurs, a maximum of 20 hours of athletically related activity per week can be mandated with one full day off per week during the season.
  • D-III teams may begin playing games on the third Friday after the first official practice date.
  • D-III teams must complete their seasons no later than the National Championship Game.

Division III teams are allowed to play a maximum of 25 regular season games. Conference playoffs and NCAA tournament games are exempt from the 25-game allotment. D-III teams are allowed to schedule up to 2 exhibition games.

D-III offers a true ‘Division Championship’, D-I does not… Divisions with a minimum of 40 teams that compete can have a true division national championship. As of the 2019-2020 season, D-III women’s ice hockey had over 60 teams, which is why it has a true Division III National Championship. Division I has always had what is called a ‘National Collegiate Championship’ because D-I has always had fewer than 40 teams. In the 19-20 season, the NEWHA conference was added pushing the number over the 40 team threshold to 41. Division I coaches are looking into asking the NCAA for a true Division I National Championship now that D-I has the correct number of teams competing.

Level of Play

It’s probably no secret, Division I has a higher level of skill, ability, and overall play than at D-III.

The reason: Philosophy. Here is what’s said right from each of the NCAA rules manual.

Division I Philosophy:

Division I institutions should strive in its athletics program for regional and national excellence and prominence. Accordingly, its recruitment of student athletes and its emphasis on and support of its athletics program are, in most cases, regional and national in scope.

The Division III philosophy states:

Colleges and universities in Division III place highest priority on the overall quality of the educational experience and on the successful completion of all students’ academic programs. They seek to establish and maintain an environment in which a student-athlete’s athletics activities are conducted as an integral part of the student-athlete’s educational experience, and in which coaches play a significant role as educators. They also seek to establish and maintain an environment that values cultural diversity and gender equity among their student-athletes and athletics staff.

With that said, here’s what we’ll say about the level of play at D-I and D-III.

The Division I NCAA level has the best and most skilled collection of players in the world. It’s often been said, playing Division I hockey – is the most professional level of hockey most players will ever play. Look no further than the Olympic teams of the US and Canada. Both just announced their centralization rosters for the 2022 Olympics, 55 players in total chosen. 2 have not played in the NCAA – one from each country. And the US player is committed to play at a D-I school, but just finished high school and has not entered college yet.

If you look at teams across the board at the D-I level, they are usually bigger, faster, more skilled and physically developed than thost playing at Division III.

Having said all that, Division III hockey is a GREAT brand of hockey.