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The concept of an automatic bid (also known as autobids or automatic qualifiers) to the NCAA Tournament, over time, has changed greatly. Generally, conferences with more than six teams that compete at the NCAA division prescribed are given an automatic bid to award to one of their teams, at their discretion. Today, this bid is universally awarded to the winner of each conference tournament.
As of 2005, every team in Men's Division I can compete for an autobid through their league tournament, and all teams are eligible for the 10 at-large bids.
Men's Division I Edit
The first four NCAA Tournaments did not include autobids. Between 1948 and 1951, the NCAA itself chose the four participants for the tournament, always inviting two western teams and two eastern teams.
From 1952 to 1959, the prominent western teams formed the MCHL (later the WIHL) in order to help the NCAA select the two western teams. The top two regular season teams - there was no tournament - were selected each year for the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA was not required to invite the top two teams, so these were not considered automatic bids in the true definition, but in practice, the system was common sense if the NCAA wished to invite the two best western teams. The WIHL disbanded in 1959, and for that year the NCAA returned to their previous system.
In 1960, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association was formed, complete with a post-season playoff system. The two teams who reached the WCHA Championship Game were selected as the NCAA representatives from the west. This was the first true instance of an automatic bid system. The same year, the NCAA required the eastern teams to play "play-in" games for their bids. These games were not part of the NCAA Tournament or any type of championship structure.
The eastern teams created a counterpart to the WCHA when they formed the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference in 1962. This created a system where all four NCAA Tournament teams were chosen by conference tournaments - the participants of the respective leagues' championship games were given automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament. For over a decade, from 1962 to 1976, the automatic bids were the only path to the NCAA Tournament, there were no at-large bids. In 1966, the WCHA decided to stop playing a championship game, since it did not have any bearing on the advancement of the teams. The semifinal winners who had previously played in the WCHA Championship were awarded automatic bids without playing against each other.
In 1976, with the advent of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, the number of tournament teams became somewhat flexible. The NCAA decided that the tournament was expandable to five or six teams if there was a deserving eastern or western team to warrant an at-large bid from either region. There was not determined to be one for that season, but in 1977, the third western bid became mandatory, to be awarded to the CCHA champion. From 1977 to 1980, there were 5 autobids - 2 from the ECAC, 2 from the WCHA, and 1 from the CCHA. There was also an optional at-large bid available for a worthy eastern team. This optional bid was only awarded in 1978, creating the first and only six-team field.
In 1981 the tournament was expanded to eight teams, and the ECAC and WCHA each lost one of their autobids each of the three established leagues were given one autobid each, to be awarded to the tournament champions. As such, the WCHA resumed their championship game in 1982. Under this system, two of the at-large bids were required to be western teams, while the other three were eastern teams. The next season, the at-large bids were re-arranged again, requiring 2 eastern bids and allowing 3 bids from either region. The NCAA during this time was still careful to maintain a balance of eastern and western teams.
In 1985, Hockey East was awarded an automatic bid after their first season concluded, moving the number of autobids to four, one for each league's tournament champion, and 4 at-large bids from among the teams that did not win their league tournament. This marked a departure from the NCAA's previous mandate to ensure an equal divide of eastern and western teams. From 1985 forward, the NCAA attempted to take the best teams for the at-large bids under the prescribed method for awarding them.
In 1988, the tournament was expanded to twelve teams, but the four autobids remained. 1 at-large bid was earmarked for a team not eligible for an automatic bid - playing outside of the Big Four leagues, such as an Independent team, 4 at-large bids were saved for a second team from each of the Big Four leagues, and the remaining 3 were open to any team. The guaranteed independent bid was abolished in 1993.
In 1995, four more potential autobids were handed out to the Big Four, awarding an automatic bid to any regular-season champion which did not go on to win the league tournament. Any league with the same team winning both the regular season and tournament was given only one autobid for the year, and an additional at-large bid would be awarded instead. This system lasted for the remainder of the 1990s.
With the creation of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference league in the late 1990s, there was a fifth league meeting the NCAA requirements for an automatic bid, and the league was awarded an autobid beginning in 2001. Concurrently, the autobid option for Big Four league winners was rescinded, leaving 5 autobids and 7 at-large bids.
With College Hockey America due to gain an autobid, the NCAA bowed to popular pressure and expanded the tournament to 16 teams in 2003, the same year the CHA was first awarded an autobid, creating a tournament with 6 autobids and 10 at-large teams. In 2004, the MAAC was replaced by Atlantic Hockey which inherited the MAAC's autobid, creating the current NCAA autobid system.
Women's Division I Edit
Prior to 2014, there were three automatic bids to the tournament; ECAC, Hockey East, and WCHA tournament champions plus five at-large bids awarded at the discretion of the selection committee. Starting with the 2015 tournament the four conference (College Hockey America, ECAC, Hockey East, and WCHA) tournament champions were awarded the conference's automatic bid to the tournament. Four at-large bids were awarded at the discretion of the selection committee.
Men's Division III Edit
As of the 2015 tournament there were 7 automatic bids awarded to conference tournament champions. ECAC East, ECAC Northeast, Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference, Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. New England Small College Athletic Conference, Northern Collegiate Hockey Association State University of New York Athletic Conference.
The remaining four bids are at-large spots awarded at the discretion of the selection committee.
Women's Division III Edit
As of the 2015 tournament five conference tournament champions receive automatic bids to the tournament (ECAC East, ECAC West, Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, New England Small College Athletic Conference, and Women's National Collegiate Hockey Association. The remaining 3 bid are at-large bids awarded at the discretion of the selection committee.