Can crowdfunding save women’s college hockey?

North Dakota cut its women’s hockey program in March, in one of the saddest and most stunning decisions to rock the sport at the collegiate level.

This was a hockey-mad university. This was a program that, on the day the news hit, was touring potential recruits through campus for next season. The issue, as it always is for sports that aren’t football and basketball, was money – it didn’t matter how many UND alumni played in the Olympics when the school faced a reported $1.3 million budget shortfall.

“When you see a school like North Dakota do what they’ve done, it is scary. But more than that, it’s heartbreaking,” said Katie Million, commissioner of Western Collegiate Hockey Association, where North Dakota played. “I’m just heartbroken for the student athletes that can’t continue their careers there and have to find new homes.”

It was a decision that angered the hockey community, and it was a decision that made the WCHA reconsider its own economic future. It may not always be the apocalyptic elimination of an entire program; it might be budget cutbacks that have a trickle-down effect to the conference as a whole.

With North Dakota out of the picture, the other WCHA schools – Bemidji State, Minnesota, Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota State, Ohio State, St. Cloud State and Wisconsin – would all have to shoulder a larger financial responsibility. Which is why Million decided the time was right to be proactive, and ask those who are most passionate about women’s hockey to help ensure its stability.

On Thursday, Million and the WCHA announced a crowdfunding initiative through RallyMe.com that allows supporters to make tax-deductible donations to the League. RallyMe is a crowdfunding site that’s been utilized by several “fringe” sports for funding, from USA Canoe and Kayak to USA Ultimate.

What makes RallyMe interesting: Donations to the WCHA can target specific areas of need, from hockey scholarships to league operations to purchasing the postseason championship trophy. People know exactly where their money is going.

When Million was named commissioner in Sept. 2016, she was surprised to find out that the WCHA was a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. “I was baffled that we hadn’t been taking advantage of that status, accepting tax deductible donations,” she said.

So she made it a priority to think outside the box and find ways to accept donations “should we find some passionate fans that would like to support us,” she said. Crowdfunding was the answer.

It’s not that the WCHA was in financial trouble. Million said there weren’t any specific shortfalls that needed immediate attention, outside of a student-athlete post-graduate scholarship that she hopes the RallyMe funding can save.

“It’s really more of an enhancement of what we do,” she said.

But the WCHA crowdfunding is also preemptive in case other situations like the North Dakota implosion happen. Not only does it build a dedicated base of donors who share a passion for the league and its member schools, but it can also help the other member schools with their individual budget concerns.

“Them departing our league helps our cause. We can use the help, instead of potentially seeing programs drop,” said Million.

“I look at it as us being proactive. Everybody’s budgets are tightening. Schools are getting less funding. We have to help however we can so that those finances they’re paying us to run the league can go back into their own programs, their own budgets, so that we have less of a burden on these member schools.”

From the professional leagues through the colleges, women’s hockey continues to fight for financial stability and substantial investment. Million believes that crowdfunding, especially for a not-for-profit league like the WCHA, can provide both.

“I’m a little baffled that other conferences don’t utilize the status,” she said.

If the WCHA succeeds, perhaps they will.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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