As women's ice hockey steadily expanded from its original status as an emerging sport to its current status as an established NCAA championship sport, it became apparent that Hockey East should seriously consider sponsoring a separate league to accommodate its five member schools that initially had varsity programs for women: Boston College, Maine, New Hampshire, Northeastern and Providence. The uncertainty remained until a split in the Eastern College Athletic Conference grouped the five aforementioned programs into a separate league, the ECAC Women's Eastern League, along with three other unaffiliated programs. Seeking league solidarity, administrators from the five Hockey East institutions acted.
In September of 2001, the long-incubated idea became a reality when the athletic directors voted to found the new women's league under the existing Hockey East banner, with play scheduled to begin no later than the 2004-05 season. The five schools with varsity programs entered as charter members with the stipulation that any other Hockey East school that added a varsity women's program in the future would be freely admitted to the league.
Expediting the process in the interests of the participating teams, the league and the sport itself, Commissioner Joe Bertagna worked with a selected task force to successfully prepare the Hockey East women's league for launch in the 2002-03 season, two years ahead of schedule. An important part of that process was the acceptance of an invitation extended to the University of Connecticut to join the newly formed league as its sixth active member.
The triumphant effort immediately afforded the participating administrators a stronger voice in the advancement of their women's ice hockey programs and alleviated the ECAC of continuing the maintenance of the Women's Eastern League. Players, fans, coaches and administrators alike were all anticipating the intensified competition created by the new circle of teams that were already familiar rivals.
In 2005, the Women's Hockey East Association welcomed the addition of two more teams to its growing family, Boston University and the University of Vermont. For BU, it marked the inaugural season for women's hockey as a varsity sport.
Although the Women's Hockey East Association is still in its infancy, its member programs have storied histories that include several championships and individual awards at the highest levels of play. The first 14 ECAC championships were shared among New Hampshire, Northeastern and Providence, all charter members of Hockey East. Northeastern forward Brooke Whitney was named the recipient of the 2002 Patty Kazmaier Award as the nation's top female collegiate player, an honor first won by New Hampshire's Brandy Fisher in 1998. Had the award been in existence beforehand, it surely would have been won at some point by Cammi Granato, a three-time ECAC Player of the Year who led Providence to back-to-back championships in 1992 and 1993. Five years later, in 1998, alongside nine other alums of what are now Hockey East programs, Granato captained Team USA to the Olympic gold medal during the first Olympic tournament that featured women's ice hockey as a medal sport. Granato will be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in October for her contributions to the sport. Beginning in 2009, the WHEA athletic directors voted to honor the league Player of the Year with the Cammi Granato Award.
Perhaps the proudest legacy that the Women's Hockey East Association has established is the Hockey Humanitarian Award. The most prestigious off-ice honor, and arguably the highest overall honor in the sport, the Hockey Humanitarian Award recognizes college hockey's finest citizen each year and encompasses both male and female athletes in all divisions. Its winners have demonstrated outstanding contributions to society through leadership in charity work and volunteerism. Northeastern senior forward Missy Elumba was the 2009 recipient, as the fifth Hockey East student-athlete to receive the prestigious honor. Elumba was the 14th all-time recipient and joined former Husky goaltender Chanda Gunn, who received the award in 2004, as the second athlete in Northeastern women's hockey history. BC's Sarah Carlson received it in 2005, making Women's Hockey East the first league to boast back-to-back winners.