Corbin Chapman didn’t particularly care which Minnesota college it was—he just wanted to play Division I hockey.
Chapman grew up like most youth players in the State of Hockey with dreams of continuing to play at the collegiate level. After playing three years at Burnsville High School, Chapman decided to play junior hockey for one season in hopes of getting picked up by a Division I powerhouse.
But no Division I schools came knocking. Instead, a different door opened up with a new opportunity: Division III.
It wasn’t exactly what Chapman had in mind.
“I think everyone who goes to juniors has a plan to play Division I,” said Chapman, who enters his senior season at Division III Augsburg College as the team’s captain. “For some it works out, other times you have to look in the mirror and figure out what you want to do after hockey. In my case, I wanted to go to school and found a good fit in Augsburg when I visited. The rest is history.”
The reality can be a hard to pill to swallow. There are more than 47,000 youth hockey players from ages 6 and up in Minnesota—six birth years competing for college spots. There are 1,646 roster spots on 60 Division I men’s teams across the nation. There are 846 spots on 36 Division I women’s teams. Do the math and the odds of being named to one of those slots is slim. Even if you do happen to earn your way on to an NCAA Division I squad via scholarship or as a walk-on, you’re not always guaranteed the ice time you might desire.
Meanwhile, there are 79 Division III teams and 2,314 roster spots available. Seven of those teams are located here in Minnesota as members of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
“In the MIAC you’ve got motivated, competitive, student-athletes that you’re working with on a daily basis,” said Augsburg men’s head coach Chris Brown. “You throw in the quality of play in our league and I think that we’re probably the most unrecognized league with a lot of high-quality players that go unnoticed.”
Brown credits the high-end development in Minnesota with the reason the talent pool runs so deep. There were 207 Division I players from Minnesota last season—the most compared to other states by a landslide.
“Kids in Minnesota are training harder, they’re learning to play hockey at younger ages and their development is fostered in one of the best states for hockey,” said Brown, who coached three seasons at Division I Alaska-Anchorage from 1997-2000. “The majority of them have dreams of playing Division I and pro hockey. Their goal in doing all of this is not to say, ‘I want to play Division III hockey.’ I think the quality of play in our state is so impressive that the biggest thing that gets overlooked is how good players are because the talent pool is so much larger than it was five or 10 years ago.
“That’s why the MIAC is able to compete at an equally high level—we have players that are just as good and just as competitive as some of those on the Division I roster.”
Players generally aren’t too familiar with the MIAC when they enter their first season. Those who grew up around the Twin Cities can list off the names of conference teams but know little about the competition level beyond that.
They learn quickly once they step out on the ice.
“I remember sitting on the bench during my first game and was just like ‘wow, these guys are fast,’” said Lucas Dietsch, now in his sophomore season with the Auggies. “This is not junior hockey anymore, this is college hockey and it is fast.”
Natalie Darwitz played Division I hockey at the University of Minnesota. She is the school’s all-time leading scorer and has showcased her scoring prowess and speed on the international stage as well. She enters her second season as head coach of Hamline University’s women’s team. Even she was impressed at the level of play she was now in charge of.
“The pace is much quicker than high school and a lot more physical. There’s a good jump from high school to Division III,” said Darwitz. “You gotta think, why are these kids not playing Division I? Usually they’re just missing a little bit [from their game] but they’re still really high-end or middle-of-the-pack, good high school hockey players.
“It’s a very serious level. Every game and every weekend is taken very seriously with a lot of competition.”
Just like NCAA Division I student-athletes, MIAC athletes are expected to balance academics and athletics equally. Practice is at a set time Monday through Thursday with weekend series. Academic counselors are available along with other educational resources to make sure classwork and hockey don’t send players into overload.
“We don’t want them to feel like they’re sacrificing an ounce of education,” said Brown. “Our team GPA last season was a 3.72. It’s impressive what they do. We had 21 of our 26 players last year on the dean’s list which is a GPA of 3.5 or higher.
“We just built this environment of very competitive kids who don’t just want to be hockey players. They’re getting an opportunity to get a great education, too.”
Darwitz wants players to look at Division III in a new light. In the last couple of years she thinks they have.
“Instead of high school players saying, ‘well I cant go play DI so I’m not good enough, I’m done, I’m just going to go to school,’ they’re now saying, ‘no, I want to continue to play hockey. I put in the last 15 years of my life playing hockey, why would I stop? Division III is an option for me to not only get a great education but continue to play the game I love for four more years.
“I think kids out of high school are taking a serious look at that now.”