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 takes over for Katie Million, who accepted a position with USA Hockey, and comes to the job after nearly three years with the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.
Flowers, 38, is a former student-athlete, who played volleyball at Winona State. She takes over the top job for a seven-team conference that has claimed 16 of the 19 NCAA women’s hockey titles, starting with Minnesota Duluth in 2001, and most recently with Wisconsin in March. In Part 1 of a three-part series on the state of women’s hockey, Flowers spoke to The Rink Live about the challenges and opportunities that she anticipates with the women’s WCHA.
What do you see as your first priority in the new position?
I think the conversation surrounding membership is my first priority. That was the priority established via the coaches during the interview process. Seven institutions is obviously strong and we’re maintaining, but the desire to be at more than seven exists and it’s something that would be the desire of the coaches to explore increasing our membership. Priority 1A for me would be getting back into the sponsorship conversations and making sure the level of support that was built during Katie’s tenure doesn’t decrease, and in fact, increases.
You’ve admitted that hockey is somewhat new territory for you. What excites you the most about the sport and about your new role?
Right now, it’s such an amazing time across the country in collegiate women’s athletics. You’re seeing the growth and the fan support in other sports via the television contracts and the way that ESPN is really showcasing women. That’s what’s exciting to me because I want hockey to be in that same space. For me it’s less about hockey than it is about the women. I’m excited to learn about the sport, to dive in and understand why these women chose what they chose, what is special to them about the WCHA, and to get a chance to work with elite-level female student-athletes. That’s what my passion is, and we’re clearly competitively doing things right. It’s not often that you get to align yourself with institutions and student-athletes who are so well regarded nationally. Now I just need to find a way to tell that story and broaden our base. So that’s really, really exciting for me.
As a former college athlete, what personal experience do you bring to the position, and how do you see the world changing for female student athletes in 2019 and beyond?
Any time, whether it's the same sport or not, you can understand what their shoes feel like, the pressures, the time constraints. Women by their nature are perfectionists, very self-driven, and there’s a desire to do everything right. I’ve been through some of that. But on the other side are the opportunities, and I think sometimes that gets lost, the opportunities that sports brings you, specifically off the ice. There are a lot of chances to do things that you wouldn’t have done if you weren’t a student-athlete. So I think there’s a familiarity, and I think when I get a chance to talk to them, it’s not going to seem like a foreign language to me.
Obviously, it’s different at every institution. But I’ve been there, I’ve walked through it and I’ve had an opportunity to use my experience as a catalyst for my future, and I want to help them do that as well, whatever their future is. They’re all going to have different goals, but I certainly am not where I am today without the collegiate experience that I had, so I want to be able to find ways to share that with them.
And then to the second part of your question, it’s a really interesting time. I think that there's more exposure, there’s more appreciation, there’s more opportunity for women now than there ever has been. And so capitalizing on that and stepping into every opportunity that we can get. We talk a lot in leadership that we know when the opportunity presents itself, not only do you take it, but you have to take it and really be ready for it, and finding ways to just make sure that our women and our and our teams, our institutions, when the opportunities come for us to be ready, and be ready to show everyone who doesn't know what WCHA hockey is all about. I think the doors are going to open. We have to be ready to walk through.
Katie Million has said the lowest point of her years as commissioner was the loss of the North Dakota program. You have seven teams now. Is the footing stable there, and do you feel good about where those seven teams are? (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 do. I do. You know, what has happened on the men’s side in the last few weeks probably has a few people raising their eyebrows a little bit, but at this point we stand by the fact that that is a men’s league issue alone. I think the climate of intercollegiate athletics and the climate of higher education is always scary. What we feel strong with right now is the commitment of our seven institutions. Am I smart enough to know that could change very quickly? Yeah, I think it could, and I don’t think it would be for reasons other than potentially just institutional challenges. But based on all of my conversations and everything that we know right now, we’re seven strong, and committed and really desiring to continue to elevate.
Tomorrow, in Part 2 of our three-part series on women’s college hockey, we continue our conversation with Jennifer Flowers, where we explore the roots of her interest in the job, the search for parity in women’s college hockey, and how changes to the men’s WCHA may or may not affect the women’s league.