College ice hockey is played principally in Canada and the United States, though leagues exist outside North America.
In Canada, the term "college hockey" refers to community college and small college ice hockey that currently consists of a varsity conference--the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference (ACAC) -- and a club league--the British Columbia Intercollegiate Hockey League (BCIHL). "University hockey" is the term used for hockey primarily played at four-year institutions; that level of the sport is governed by U Sports.
In the United States, competitive "college hockey" refers to ice hockey played between colleges and universities within the governance structure established by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA).
The National Collegiate Athletic Association has conducted national championships for men's ice hockey since 1948, and women's ice hockey since 2001.
U.S. college hockey players must be deemed eligible for NCAA competition by the NCAA Eligibility Center, a process that examines a student-athlete's academic qualifications and amateur status. Players who have participated in the Canadian Hockey League or any professional hockey league are considered ineligible.
Men's U.S. college hockey is a feeder system to the National Hockey League. As of the 2010-11 season, 30 percent of NHL players (a total of 294) had U.S. college hockey experience prior to turning professional, an increase of 35 percent from the previous 10 years. That percentage has been maintained the past three seasons, with a record 301 NHL players coming from college hockey in 2011-12.
One hundred thirty-eight colleges and universities sponsor men's ice hockey in the NCAA's three divisions.
The NCAA Division I has 60 ice hockey teams as of the 2015-16 season. Twenty-one schools are Division II or III athletic programs that "play up" to Division I in hockey, and 16 schools that are full Division I members are in the Football Bowl Subdivision, six of which compete in the Big Ten Conference.
The NCAA Division I Championship is a 16-team, single-elimination tournament, divided into four, 4-team regional tournaments. The winner of each regional advances to the Frozen Four to compete for the national championship. For many years, 5 teams earned automatic bids through winning conference tournament championships, while 11 earned at-large berths through a selection committee. With the addition of the Big Ten Hockey Conference for the 2013-14 season, the tournament now features 6 automatic qualifiers, and 10 at-large bids. The ranking system that is used to determine the at-large teams is known as the Pairwise Rankings, which uses a number of ranking factors to create a scoring system for all NCAA Division I teams.
In 2015-16, there were 60 schools competing in Division I, with 59 of them organized into six conferences, plus one team (Arizona State) playing as an independent program with no conference affiliation. The conferences are:
The Ivy League recognizes ice hockey champions for both sexes, but it does not sponsor the sport; it instead uses the results of regular-season ECAC Hockey matches involving two Ivy League schools to extrapolate an Ivy champion (all six Ivy League schools that sponsor varsity hockey do so for both men and women, and compete in the ECAC). The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference sponsored D-I men's hockey, but dropped the sport in 2003.
The NCAA does not currently sponsor a championship in Division II, as there is only one conference that currently sponsors hockey, the Northeast-10 Conference. The NCAA conducted a Division II national championship from 1978 to 1984 and also from 1993 to 1999.
The 74 programs in Division III hockey are part of 9 conferences:
The NCAA has conducted a Division III national championship since 1984. The current championship format is a 12-team (formerly 11-team), single-elimination bracket.
Eighty-eight colleges and universities sponsor women's ice hockey in two divisions: National Collegiate and Division III.
The National Collegiate championship is an 8-team, single-elimination tournament to determine the national champion.
The Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award is awarded annually by USA Hockey to the top player in women's Division I hockey.
The most recent school to add varsity women's hockey was Merrimack, which upgraded its women's club team to full varsity status for the 2015-16 season and joined the school's men's team in Hockey East.
There are 49 teams in Division III, plus three other programs from Divisions I and II, in seven conferences:
The Division III championship is a 9-team, single-elimination tournament to determine the national champion.
University hockey teams in Canada compete in leagues as part of U Sports, the national governing body for Canadian university athletics (in Canadian English, the term "college" is reserved for schools that would be called "junior", "community", or "technical" colleges in the U.S.). U Sports sponsors both men's and women's hockey.
Like in the United States, teams compete in athletic conferences based on geographical locations of the schools. Unlike the NCAA, U Sports does not award players with athletic scholarships, resulting in a lack of divisional separation such as found between NCAA divisions. Individual conferences hold postseason tournaments, followed by the round-robin U Sports championship tournament in late March.
In 2015, a group of member schools in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) began working to add the sport to the organization. The NAIA originally sponsored a men's ice hockey championship from 1968 to 1984 when it was discontinued due to many of the schools with teams leaving the NAIA for the NCAA. A few NAIA schools continued to sponsor the sport as varsity-club teams in the ACHA. A growing number of schools have added ice hockey as members of the ACHA over the past 5-10 years. In 2016, several NAIA institutions that sponsor men's ice hockey teams announced the formation of a coaches association and a new division for NAIA ice hockey program to begin play during the 2017-18 season. In 2017, The Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference (WHAC) became the first current conference in the NAIA to offer the sport and host a conference championship.
The American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) is the sanctioning body for non-NCAA, ice hockey in the United States. The organization provides structure, regulations and promotes the quality of collegiate ice hockey.
Teams separated into three men's and two women's divisions with over 300 teams from across the United States. The recruiting process, rules and regulations, and player eligibility standards parallel that of NCAA Division III. Sometimes, ACHA and NCAA will play games against each other to complete each of their season schedules.
A rivalry between the United States Military Academy (Army) Black Knights and the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) Paladins resulted in an annual West Point Weekend hockey game. The series was first played in 1923, and was claimed to be the longest-running annual international sporting event in the world. Army and RMC played continuously from 1949 until 2007, when scheduling conflicts forced the academies to abandon the scheduled game. The series will resume in 2011-12 and continue for the next two seasons at least.
In the United Kingdom, college hockey league is operated by BUIHA (British Universities Ice Hockey Association). It was founded in 2003 and currently includes 23 clubs across the UK.