When the ACC added Notre Dame to the fold for the 2012-13 season, much was made of the school’s continued embrace of football independence. Almost totally lost in the chatter, then as now, was the fate of the other Fighting Irish team that stood apart from the ACC. Notre Dame decided to go its own way in football; ice hockey had no choice.
Despite grassroots interest and NHL outposts throughout the ACC’s sprawling reach, there is only one Division I program south of the Mason-Dixon line – at Alabama-Huntsville. Last we heard, the UAH Chargers had yet to join the ACC. Only Notre Dame and Boston College among the ACC’s 15 current members play Division I men’s hockey, and only BC and Syracuse field D-I women’s squads.
Hockey in this region is played as a club sport, a competitive level that’s a vestige of an era when collegiate play was organized by students for students, and participants were indistinguishable from other members of the student body.
“I think what you see is a group of students who are passionate about a sport they love,” says Jason Halsey, director of sport clubs at the University of North Carolina. “They give it their all. They aren’t the most talented group of individuals, but they play hard, they have a lot of pride in their sport, a lot of pride in their team, a lot of pride in their school.”
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College hockey is slowly gaining traction in the Southeast, in North Carolina, and most especially in Raleigh, where N.C. State is the closest pursuer to Georgetown, the team to beat in the Atlantic Coast Collegiate Hockey League. The Wolfpack has two first-place regular-season finishes and a title in the league’s February tournament during four years under coach Mike Gazzillo. Bates Battaglia, a pro for 15 seasons, including six with the Carolina Hurricanes (1998-2003), is an assistant.
“No one is going to the NHL here, but they are certainly exciting games,” offers Gazzillo, a retired New York police officer and firefighter. “I get a lot of people coming out, they say, ‘Wow! We didn’t expect it be this good.’ The product that we deliver exceeds expectations from people that see it.”
But while the 20-year-old ACCHL intentionally mimics the name of the Atlantic Coast Conference, whose schools comprise half the membership, it’s only a distant cousin to its high-profile namesake in visibility, resources and relative quality of play.
BC and Notre Dame are members of Hockey East, a league that commands 70 regional and national telecasts this season. Meanwhile the ACCHL enjoys scant exposure. (N.C. State’s campus cable station, Wolfpack Sports Television, does carry the school’s games.) Spectators are as sparse as the media coverage, even though league ticket prices are five dollars or less.
“Of the ACC, we have more attendance than anybody else by far,” Sean Blye, a Wolfpack defenseman born and raised in Cary, said proudly the other day. “I think we had a game on Friday (against the Tar Heels) where we had 600 people there.” Virginia’s team recently attracted 820 fans, a figure proudly cited by ACCHL Commissioner Mike Walley.
A lesser league
The music of hockey – the shush and scrape of skates, the thump of pucks striking pads, the smack of bodies propelled into the boards – is universal, but the melody can be wildly uneven within the ACCHL, a second-division league under the umbrella of the national American Collegiate Hockey Association.
On a recent night, North Carolina and defender Lucie Kloak, a 6-2 former UNC rower and one of two women playing in the ACCHL, led newcomer High Point 7-0 after one period. The goals came so easily the last wasn’t even celebrated by the Tar Heels on the ice.
John Jackson, UNC’s goalie, grew up playing hockey in Durham but attended prep school in Connecticut for several years. He says the league, which includes a smattering of local products and graduate students, is “a step down from varsity prep school” competition in the Northeast, where players are more skilled and “hockey smart.”
ACCHL Commissioner Walley admits “we are probably one of the lesser-talented leagues in the country at the D-II level.” The retired Navy rear admiral eagerly anticipates a brighter future based on youngsters in the region taking up the sport earlier, getting more ice time and facing stiffer, more skilled competition than today’s players.
“I tell the kids that are playing now, you come back 10 years from now (and) you’re not even going to recognize the level of hockey that’s being played in the ACC.” He also predicts a women’s league arising in the region within that decade.
The ACCHL has grown in recent years to 10 members, with Army and Charlotte possible additions in the near future. (Besides N.C. State and North Carolina, current teams include Duke, Elon, George Washington, Georgetown, High Point, Navy, Virginia and Wake Forest.) The league also has lost members – Maryland, Virginia Tech and West Virginia – just like the ACC.
Club athletes do not receive athletic scholarships. Instead, the two dozen or so roster members pay to participate, and raise funds to support their team. In most cases the bulk of the $40,000 to $55,000 required to field an ACCHL squad does not come from the school it represents. Teams play home games off campus at arenas such as Raleigh’s Iceplex, Hillsborough’s Orange County Sportsplex and Winston-Salem’s Joel Coliseum Annex. That means paying for ice time that can eat up the majority of a program’s budget.
“Honestly, club sports are the true amateurs that the NCAA says that NCAA athletics are. We’re here for education and we play sports,” says Jackson, an economics major and president of the UNC hockey team. “It’s definitely not for the glory. It’s all for the fun, the love of the game.”
Including games, practice sessions and individual training, during the season ACCHL players devote between 10 to 20 hours weekly to hockey. That’s far less than the time required of their counterparts in high-profile college sports. “We definitely don’t make any money for the university, like they do,” notes Jackson. “It’s less of a job for us.”
N.C. State senior Blye nevertheless dreams of a day when his school and others in the ACCHL will undertake Division I NCAA competition. Chances are, that won’t happen anytime soon.
Factor in the costs of player scholarships, coaching salaries, recruiting, team travel, support personnel, equipment, meals, and an ice rink available for practices and games, and the expense of launching a D-I hockey team would easily exceed $1 million. Given the current state of major-college sports – with growing and unknown expenditures on the near horizon and gender equity issues a constant concern – the prospect an ACC school will elevate its men’s club hockey team to the highest level is remote.
“It wouldn’t be fiscally responsible,” says Debbie Yow, the N.C. State athletics director. Besides, Yow is most often lobbied to add a team in lacrosse, not hockey.