While the future of the Phoenix Coyotes has been stuck in limbo over the last several years, hockey in the desert has continued to grow at the collegiate level.
One program that’s experienced this growth is the University of Arizona, led by head coach Sean Hogan. Playing in the ACHA Division 1, the Wildcats have begun attracting the attention of some of North America’s finest young hockey talent — all of whom are of the caliber to compete in the NCAA Division 3.
“The gap has closed rapidly between NCAA D3 and ACHA D1,” said Hogan, who has been the bench boss at Arizona since 2011-12. ”Every player we are speaking with is also talking to numerous D3 schools.”
While Arizona and its fellow ACHA teams haven’t always been able to lure in high-end recruits, it’s easy to see why many of these kids are starting to commit to ACHA programs in lieu of their NCAA options. Outside the rink, U of A offers a lot more for students than many NCAA D3 universities, and that’s become a huge selling point for the Wildcats.
“What I am finding is that more and more student athletes like the idea of attending a large school like Arizona,” Hogan said. “We offer great academics, a great campus, great social opportunities, big time football and basketball programs, as well as PAC 12 sports, and all this appeals to potential student athletes.”
While the competition within the ACHA has intensified of late, there’s no better indication of how far this association has come than its success against NCAA opponents. Arizona State beat D1 team Penn State last December — a landmark victory for not only the Sun Devils, but for the ACHA as a whole.
ACHA teams are are challenging NCAA squads multiple times a year, often times emerging victorious.
“Last season alone ACHA D1 beat numerous NCAA D3 teams (ACHA D1 had a winning record I believe versus their NCAA D3 counterparts),” Hogan said. “I am very excited about the future of our league and the direction we are headed. I think you will find more and more potential student athletes opting for the great academic institutions in our league.”
While the Wildcat’s haven’t had winning seasons in recent years — posting records of 13-19-2 and 15-23-0 in 2011-12 and 2012-13, respectively — Coach Hogan remains optimistic about his team’s future. The 15 wins this past season was the most for the Wildcats since 2007-08, and that was accomplished despite having the third hardest schedule as per ACHA Computer Polls.
Hogan, who played at Iona College and began coaching in the ACHA in 2005 at Oakland University, has a strong track record behind the bench. During his tenure at OU he captured an ACHA D2 national championship, and led the program in its transition to ACHA D1 in 2006 — a transition that proved to be successful, as Oakland posted a combined record of 43-24-2 in the next two years.
Hogan’s goal now is to find the kind of success with Arizona that he found at OU.
“Most importantly, we are looking for players that want to be Wildcats, regardless of the league a player comes from,” he said. “We want players that have great academics, great work ethics and want to compete for a national championship.”
Believe it or not, the Wildcats have been playing ice hockey for quite some time, dating back to the late 70′s. Leo Golembiewski founded the program and coached U of A for over three decades — winning a national championship in 1985.
Led by Golembiewski, Arizona was an original member of the ACHA when the organization was established in 1991.
“There is a tremendous hockey history at the University of Arizona,” said Hogan. “Arizona Hockey has played NCAA teams such as Notre Dame, Alaska Fairbanks and Anchorage, St. Cloud State, and Kent State, even earning wins over Anchorage and Kent State.”
Developing Hockey in the Copper State
While Hogan hasn’t been in the area very long, he has noticed the effect that the NHL has had in the local community. And now that the Coyotes’ future is somewhat stable, the influence of professional hockey should aid the grassroots hockey effort now more than ever.
“I have only been in Arizona for two years now, but I can say that the game has grown tremendously since the addition of the Coyotes to the NHL,” Hogan said. “There are more and more ice surfaces going up in the Phoenix area and the area is producing some great players.”
Now that we know the Coyotes are staying for now, there needs to be more work done on growing hockey in the desert. Arizona grew by 12 players from the previous year to 4,125 in 2012-13. I will probably expand more on this, but what’s interesting about Arizona is that it’s total membership still hasn’t been able to get back to its all-time high of 5,538 registered players in 2001-02. The Coyotes sparked the initial growth, but it has not been fostered sufficiently enough to sustain it.
There have been talks recently of building a new ice rink in Tucson, which would aid the Wildcats (and other local programs) significantly. For starters, it would give Hogan and his team a place to rent more ice time, a luxury they haven’t had enough of in recent years.
“We’d be a better team for sure (if we had more ice time),” Hogan told the Daily Wildcat in March. ”I mean, the last month of the season we didn’t practice much at the TCC (Tucson Convention Center), we had to go travel to practice, travel to games. In that stretch we were only … what were we? 1-7 down the stretch? 1-7-1? Or 1-5-1, something like that down the stretch, with severe lack of practice time. That’s definitely something that of we want to continue to build the hockey program here, we’ll get adjusted.”
Even though nothing appears ready to change overnight, the Tucson rink project could receive the green light in the near future. An admin of the Facebook page Tucson Wants an Ice Rink posted the following on June 25:
“Spoke with someone who said that things are coming into place nicely. They said that copperigloo.com should be active in the next 4-6 weeks and major project progress to take place in the next 90 days. This is exciting for the local ice community.” (Ed note: as of July 23, copperigloo.com remains unused).
Much like what we’ve seen in places like Tennessee, North Carolina and California, the addition of new ice rinks can (and will) lead to thriving hockey communities across the South — including Arizona.
“It is definitely a fast growing sport in AZ. It will continue to grow as along as we continue to build access to it,” Hogan concluded. “It is important that rinks are built, and maintained, in AZ because the players being produced here are fast becoming some of the better athletes around the country.
“It is an exciting time for AZ hockey and it will continue to get better and better.”