Strong putting lessons learned to good use with Duluth

Photo provided by Abbey Strong North Dakota’s Abbey Strong turns up the ice with the puck during a game in the 2003-04 season. Strong played two years for the Fighting Sioux after playing two seasons for Findlay.

DULUTH, Minn. — It was a long Sunday for Houghton native Abbey Strong. She and four cohorts spent a day on the phone, and in front of the television, watching.

It was “Selection Sunday” in the world of NCAA Division I women’s hockey and the fate of four teams laid in her hands. Strong is part of the NCAA Division I Women’s Ice Hockey Committee as well as an assistant athletic director at the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD).

“There’s five of us and we are in charge of choosing the eight teams that go to the national tournament,” said Strong. “There are four automatic bids from the teams that have won their conference tournaments and then we choose the remaining four.”

There are 37 NCAA Division I women’s hockey programs. Strong said that she and her committee had a tough time this year with the final four picks because there were so many good teams.

“We had to leave out four teams that had 20 or more wins,” she stated.

Strong added that unlike the men’s tournament, which is strictly based on numbers, there is a little bit more wiggle room that can be considered for the selection of the at-large criteria. This includes looking at a team’s win-lost record, strength of schedule and eligibility and availability of student-athletes for NCAA championships. The Women’s Ice Hockey Committee does not consider outside polls as a source for selections. The four at-large teams they chose this year were Boston College, Princeton, Cornell and Minnesota.

The quarterfinals will be played this weekend and the final four teams, known as the “Frozen Four,” will be played the weekend of March 22-24 at Quinnipiac University in Hamden Connecticut.

It is a dream job for the 36-year-old Strong who grew up on skates in Houghton.

“I was on skates when I was three and playing with the boys when I was five,” she said.

She played in the Copper Country Junior Hockey Association and eventually ended up playing travel hockey with a girl’s team based in Madison, Wisconsin, during her high school years.

“I was fortunate to be able to practice hockey after school with the Houghton High School boys and then travel on the weekends.”

Strong graduated from Houghton in 2000 and went on to play NCAA Division I hockey herself. She started with two years at the University of Findlay in Ohio and finished her career at the University of North Dakota. Once her playing career was over, she went into coaching. She was part of the Finlandia University’s women program’s coaching staff when it got off the ground in 2004 and was there for two years.

She has been at UMD since 2011 as an athletic director and specifically overseeing compliance and camps at the Duluth campus.

“I am in charge of enforcing and educating all the NCAA rules for our student athletes, coaches and boosters,” Strong said. “This means regularly tracking practice hours and keeping track of financial aid and scholarships for all of our athletes here among many other things.”

Strong said that certainly her experience as a student athlete and as a coach and administrator helped to be selected to the Women’s Ice Hockey Committee in 2016 for a four-year term.

“I have a lot of experience in a lot of aspects of college athletics and certainly in hockey and I think that helped,” she said. “I feel so proud to represent the U.P. on the committee as this is the birthplace of hockey.”

As if she is not busy enough, Strong and her boyfriend just became parents of a daughter three months ago.

“I can’t wait to teach my daughter to play hockey on the numerous outdoor rinks here in the winter,” she said. “I enjoy living in Duluth. It feels a lot like Houghton, except on a little larger scale. It has a college-town feel with the community supporting UMD.”

Her parents still live in Houghton and Strong tries to make it back to town when she can. She said she traveled with the UMD women’s soccer team when they played Michigan Tech last fall.

“That was a lot of fun,” she said.

As for the winner of the this year’s women’s hockey tournament, she has her opinion, but her lips are sealed.

“I can’t say,” she said with a smile. “But I will say that this is going to be a really good tournament. We have eight great teams who are ready to play.”