As a defenseman in the formative years of the North Dakota women's hockey program, Abbey Strong was a stay-at-home defender. She did her job without fanfare, getting the puck out of the defensive zone, rubbing out forwards around they net and not garnering a lot of attention.
In her current job, as the director of compliance and an assistant athletic director at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Strong also likes to work behind the scenes. It is not the most high-profile of positions in the Bulldogs' athletic hierarchy.
"As a compliance officer, I fly under the radar and that is the way I like it,"' said Strong. "Being a defenseman, I liked to keep my head down and do my job. I am the same way as an administrator."
But Strong has been a little more visible the last few years. This is her fourth year on the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I Women's Ice Hockey Committee. It is the final year of her term and it means she is the committee chair. In her position, she heads a five-person committee that oversees, among other things, the selection, seeding and bracketing for the annual NCAA Women's Ice Hockey Championship.
If you want to talk about bracket integrity when the tournament field is being announced in March, Strong is the one who will share the thoughts of the committee. If you want to complain why teams are flying to a first-round NCAA pairing that upsets and confuses you, Strong will be out front to explain the committee's thought processes and try to appease fans and media.
"That role is a little outside my comfort zone," Strong said.
But as the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's representative on the committee – which also includes Bostin College coach Katie Crowley, Syracuse coach Paul Flanagan, Cornell deputy director of athletics Anita Brenner and Kate McAfee, an associate athletic director at New Hampshire – over the last four years, Strong has grown into her role with the group which watches over the growing women's game.
"We all are trying to do what is best for women's hockey," said Strong "But there are so many different leagues, coming from different perspectives and different parts of the country. There are often lots of ideas on how to move forward."
Over the summer, the NCAA Ice Hockey Committee reached consensus on a plan that would have required one extra plane flight for teams in the first round of the post-season tournament in order to maintain bracket integrity for seeded teams. The request was denied by the NCAA Division I Competition Oversight Committee who said the additional flight would be an exception to the established bracketing policy which mandates a minimization of flights in the preliminary round.
Strong knows that the issue will be addressed in future years, just like post-season tournament expansion which may be necessary when the New England Women's Hockey Association becomes eligible for an automatic qualifying berth to the NCAA tournament in two years.
"There will have to be changes," said Strong. "We aren't sure what they will be. But the sport is expanding and that means there will be some hard issues for the NCAA."
Strong brings a great deal of experience to the committee – as a player, coach and administrator.
A native of Houghton, Mich., Strong practiced with the boys' high school team in her hometown and then undertook the five-hour drive on weekends to Madison, Wis. to play girls hockey for the Wisconsin Challengers.
Her persistence paid off when she played college hockey for two years at Findlay in Ohio from 2000 to 2002 before transferring to North Dakota, where she also lettered for a pair of seasons. At the time North Dakota was playing an independent schedule in preparation to join the WCHA in 2004. UND played in the women's WCHA until March 2017 when the women's hockey program was dropped because of university-wide budget cuts.
"I transferred because I wanted to be an air traffic controller and (North Dakota) had a program for it," said Strong.
"We played everyone in the WCHA my senior year except Wisconsin," said Strong who still ranks in the top 10 in UND history among points by a defenseman.
She gives a lot of the credit for her skill development to assistant coach Paul Colontino who is now the head coach at Robert Morris. "My senior year I took on more of an offensive role and I got a lot of those points because we had good forwards," said Strong. "I loved the whole experience as part of a Division I team and going to school."
After her hockey eligibility expired, Strong knew she wanted to stay involved in athletics, rather than pursue air traffic control, and returned to Houghton. She picked up a few credits, helped coach hockey at Finlandia, a nearby Division III school, and worked in the sports information department at Michigan Tech University. Strong graduated from Tech in December 2005 with a bachelor's degree in business. She received her Masters degree in sports administration from Wayne State (Mich.) University two years later.
"I am glad I had the opportunity to be a player, coach and administrator," said Strong, now the mother of an 11-month old child. "I have been in the shoes of the student-athlete. I know what is involved in coaching. All those experiences have helped make me a better administrator."
In her job at Duluth, Strong oversees women's hockey and, having helped sports information director Dave Fischer while at Tech, still helps out in the press box at AMSOIL Arena. She admits the college game today is lot different than when she wore the green and white at North Dakota.
"It is just a lot faster," said Strong. "The skill level is much higher. The passing plays are much better. It is really exciting to just watch them make plays."
Before coming to Duluth, Strong worked for three years as coordinator of compliance and student services at the New Jersey Institute of Technology for three years. She joined the UMD staff in December 2011 and 25 months later was promoted to assistant athletic director for compliance and camps. Among her duties, Strong oversees all aspects of athletic compliance, including oversight over initial eligibility, financial aid, recruiting, transfers and continuing eligibility. She also serves on the UMD athletic department's senior staff and is the sport administrator for women's hockey and women's soccer.
As for the future, Strong still sounds like a blue-collar defenseman who enjoys being a team player.
"I like the day to day work that I currently do," she says. "But at some point, I would love to move up in this business. I would like to be an A.D. at, maybe, a Division II school. But I really enjoy what I do here."