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This club is ultra-competitive

by Shawn P. Roarke
If the term "club hockey" generates images of college players playing late-night hockey in mismatched uniforms under loosely applied rules, the American Collegiate Hockey Association has no use for you or your misguided vision.

"Club is a four-letter word in our vocabulary," says Al Murdoch, the long-time coach at Iowa State University, a top program in the ACHA.

Navy coach Michael Fox had those misleading images of club hockey in his head before becoming involved with the Midshipmen program eight years ago as an assistant coach. Today, he is in his second season as the head coach.

"To be honest that's how I looked at it," Fox said. "But when I became involved, I saw how serious it was and I saw some of these teams come through here and how serious they were, teams like URI and the University of Delaware. I thought this is pretty serious stuff."

Those involved with the ACHA call their sport many different things -- non-scholarship or non-varsity, to name two -- but never club hockey. No matter the naming semantics, there is no denying the ACHA produces quality hockey played by young men and women who love the sport.

The main difference at the Division I level between ACHA hockey and the more visible NCAA hockey is scholarships. The NCAA offers them. The ACHA does not.

In fact, ACHA programs are not funded through the school's athletic budgets, but rather are subsidized by funds from student services and player fees that average close to $2,000 per player per season.

Those with an understanding of the U.S. college hockey scene consider the top ACHA clubs -- those playing at the Division I level -- to be the equal of NCAA Division III schools.

"Your top teams in (ACHA) Division I would be very competitive against NCAA Division III teams," says Derek Schaub, the coach at Lindenwood University, a Division I school on the outskirts of St. Louis. "Can we go up and down the ice with Division III powers like Oswego and St. Norbert? Yeah, we can go up and down the ice with them. But could we win on a consistent basis? I don't know."

"I watched a club hockey game 10 years ago and I wasn't that impressed," continued Schaub, who played professional roller hockey before getting into coaching. "Now it's completely different. This is a good opportunity. It's one of those things where competition makes everyone rise. Everybody wants to keep up. Every time somebody takes a step forward, everybody is going to try to take a step forward."

Don't believe Schaub, who clearly has a horse in this race? Well, ask Austin Miller, a defenseman at the University of Oklahoma, a top-ranked Division I ACHA program. Miller, a junior from Dallas, played NCAA Division I hockey at Providence College before a coaching change there pushed him to transfer.

"I knew a few people that had gone this route and I talked to them and asked questions about it," said Miller, who has 24 points in 16 games for the 14-2-0 Sooners. "Then I watched a game and saw that the talent level (gap) wasn't as big as I thought.

"I have always been immersed in being the best you can be. I saw these kids were into that as well and that made me want to help. The hockey at the club Division I level is tremendous. Just because it doesn't get the publicity, it is overlooked. But it shouldn't be."
-- Former NHL player Rick Zombo, now an assistant coach at Lindenwood

"I just expected it not to be very organized; club hockey and club sports are just played as a joke. But when you get to the teams that are trying to make it work and have good stuff, it is just like any junior team or a good Division III team."

And as a result of that talent level, hockey players are flocking to the realm of "club" hockey. The top Division I ACHA programs now are recruiting almost exclusively from Junior A leagues in the United States and Canada. Among that group of converts to the ACHA is at least one ex-NHL player.

Rick Zombo, who played 652 NHL games on defense with Detroit, St. Louis and Boston, is an assistant coach at Lindenwood this season, helping for little more than a stipend to cover his commuting expenses.

Zombo, who used hard work and determination to forge his 13-year pro career, was convinced to become involved with Lindenwood after he took in a practice.

"I have always been immersed in being the best you can be," said Zombo, who runs the Hockey Academy of St. Louis, an off-ice training center for hockey players. "I saw these kids were into that as well and that made me want to help. The hockey at the club Division I level is tremendous. Just because it doesn't get the publicity, it is overlooked. But it shouldn't be."

While the ACHA may be missing out on mainstream attention, those in the hockey know, like Zombo, are embracing the ACHA with open arms.

According to Chris Wilk, executive director of the ACHA, his organization has experienced more than five percent annual growth in club membership in each of the past five seasons. The ACHA is the administrative body for club hockey at the collegiate level and is the national body for more than 350 programs across the United States. The ACHA, by the way, is the fastest-growing segment of hockey in the U.S. today.

But the recent growth is minuscule compared to the overall growth the sport has undergone at the ACHA level since the organization's inception in 1990, an event that brought together those programs that wanted to break away from the limits the aforementioned misconceptions about club hockey had placed on the sport.

Murdoch, the Iowa State coach, was one of the founding fathers 28 years ago. At the time, there were just 20 programs involved in the movement. Today, there are 278 teams, spread across three men's and two women's divisions.

"The growth in the game at this level has been unbelievable," said Murdoch, who has 920 wins with the Cyclones since getting the program off the ground.

So where has the growth at the ACHA level come from?

In reality, the interest in college hockey has grown as the game of hockey has grown in the United States, said Wilk. But as aggressively as the sport has grown at the grass-roots level, the number of NCAA programs has not expanded as rapidly to meet the demand as these youth players reach college and look to extend their hockey-playing experience.

"The sport of hockey itself has grown tremendously over the past 10 years and the NCAA has grown at the same level," said Wilk, who doubles as the head coach at John Carroll University, a Division I program. "The ACHA has stepped in to fill that void. I think it's a numbers game right now for the kids and ACHA hockey is becoming more acceptable as a result."

And the ACHA has the structure in place to steal a number of players that once were the sole province of Division III schools, said Joe Augustine, the long-time coach at the University of Rhode Island. Augustine, who served at an assistant coach at Brown University and played NCAA Division I hockey at Boston College before joining the Rams, said top-end Division I ACHA schools can provide a better hockey experience than many NCAA Division III programs.

"I've seen this thing grow right in front of my eyes," said Augustine, who had more than 70 players try out for the Rams this season. "We've become a good option for that kid that had D-III talent because D-III limits out at 24 games, but we are on the road like a Division I NCAA team.

"We do one or two plane trips a year and we are hitting the 42-game mark each season. We're also on the ice every day, and because we have our own rink, it's every day at 4:30 p.m. Some Division III schools still have ice early in the morning and things like that, so schools like ours become a real attractive option for those kids."

Larry Donovan helped build the Oklahoma program. Today, he serves as the team's general manager and assistant coach. He has seen the process for building his team change radically in the past decade.

"With the growth of college hockey, there are so many kids in the game now. Everyone is fighting for college scholarships and not everybody is going to get them. We provide those kids with another outlet to continue playing hockey."
-- Larry Donovan

"With the growth of college hockey, there are so many kids in the game now," said Donovan, whose son, Matthew, was selected by the New York Islanders in the 2008 Entry Draft. "Everyone is fighting for college scholarships and not everybody is going to get them. We provide those kids with another outlet to continue playing hockey."

That paradigm is far different than the scenario facing kids when Leo Golembiewski founded the University of Arizona program to start the 1979-80 season. The program went 5-3 that season and played its home games in Tempe. It also spent several seasons playing on an ice surface that measured an incomprehensible 117 feet by 70 feet.

Today, the Icecats play at the state-of-the-art Tucson Civic Center, which seats almost 7,000 and usually is two-thirds full when the Icecats are playing.

"When we started, hockey wasn't doing too well anywhere and there was nothing going on in Arizona," said Golembiewski, a Chicago native who had two "cups of coffee" as a goaltender with the St. Louis Blues before starting the Arizona program. "We figured if we could nurture the team slowly and didn't put a lot of pressure on the program, it could happen. Needless to say, we are very impressed with our progress.

"If it's done right and you don't put a lot of expectation on people and do put a lot of expectations on yourself, you can be a success. It's been an interesting ride, to say the least, and we are pretty proud of what we have accomplished in Arizona."

He should be. The Icecats have been to nine ACHA Division I Final Fours and 10 Elite Eights and "we graduate 100 percent of our kids, because that is what we are about," said Golembiewski.

Arizona is just one of the success stories -- from a program standpoint and a personal standpoint -- that litter the ACHA landscape.

In fact, ACHA grads have gone on to play pro hockey at several levels -- Iowa State's Glenn Detulleo is the captain of the Kalamazoo Wings of the International Hockey League -- and some insiders believe it is only a matter of time before a Division I player makes it to the NHL. Other ACHA alumni already have made it to the NHL on the non-playing side.

Kelly Forbes, a Canadian who played at Oklahoma, is involved in broadcasting and does freelance work for Dallas Stars telecasts.

"The ACHA was a wonderful experience for me," said Forbes, who does in-game highlight-package production for the Stars and the NBA's Dallas Mavericks. "I wouldn't be with the Stars right now if it wasn't for that experience."

A post-graduate job in hockey is not the end-game for most ACHA participants. For most, the simple joy of being able to play hockey while getting a college education is reward enough. 

"I've enjoyed everything; every part of me has enjoyed the experience here at Oklahoma," said Miller.
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