College basketball’s NCAA Final Four has taken over Minnesota, and Monday night we’ll know which of the four teams – Michigan State, Texas Tech, Auburn and Virginia – will be crowned national champion. Millions across the country will tune in to see who reigns supreme.
But here at Puck Drop headquarters, we have a more important question: How are their hockey teams?
As it turns out, all four of those Final Four hoops teams have hockey programs in one form or another. We’ll begin with the obvious.
Michigan State has a rich hockey history. The Spartans won national championships in 1966, 1986 and 2007, and have 11 Frozen Fours among their 27 NCAA tournament appearances. Lately, though, Michigan State hasn’t reached those heights. The Spartans last played in the NCAA tournament in 2012, last won a conference regular-season championship in 2000-01 (in the CCHA) and have finished last in the Big Ten in the past three seasons.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Texas Tech, a club program that plays in American Collegiate Hockey Association’s Division II. Formed in 1999, the club receives no financial assistance from the school and plays as an independent, supported by dues and alumni.
“Most Texas teams play in the TCHC [Texas Collegiate Hockey Conference], but we’re independent because it’s cheaper for us to do that right now,’’ said Jon Farias, president of the club. Tech’s opponents include Texas, TCU, SMU, Dallas Baptist and New Mexico, among others.
The biggest challenge for Tech’s club team is ice time. Since there are no rinks in Lubbock, Tech’s players must commute about 140 miles south to Odessa’s Ector County Coliseum, home of the North American Hockey League’s Odessa Jackalopes, a Tier II junior team.
“The other [Texas] teams have support by the schools and actually get to play at home rinks,’’ said Farias, a native Californian and a transfer from Texas State.
This season, Tech took its lumps as an independent, going 0-6 while playing most games with only eight players on its roster before gaining reinforcements later. “The theme was 8 Strong,’’ Farias said. “… To see the team come from eight players to a full roster in the season gives me confidence that next season the team will be impressive.’’
Farias sees former club teams like Penn State and Arizona State making successful transitions to NCAA Division I, and he can’t help but dream.
“That’s the goal, to make this a well-established program,’’ he said.
Go east and a bit north 1,500 miles from Lubbock and you’ll find Virginia’s club team, which plays in ACHA Division II and is a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference Hockey League. The team had a home in Charlottesville at the Main Street Arena, but that building was demolished before the season after being sold for redevelopment. Virginia now travels between 55 and 65 miles to arenas in Short Pump, Va., and Richmond for its practices and games.
Virginia had a successful season, finishing second to North Carolina State in the ACCHL tournament and advancing to the ACHA Division II Southeast Regional for the first time, where it lost 13-4 to Ohio State’s club team.
If you travel southwest about 620 miles from Charlottesville, you’ll find Auburn's club team, which plays at the ACHA Division III level. Like Texas Tech and Virginia, Auburn doesn’t have its own arena. Players must drive 45 minutes to the Columbus, Ga., Civic Center, which was home of the now-defunct Columbus Cottonmouths of the Southern Professional Hockey League.
Auburn competes in the South Eastern Collegiate Hockey Conference and finished fourth in the league tournament this year. Its main rivals, club President Chandler Brown said, are Tennessee and Georgia. Auburn also plays Alabama, which is an ACHA Division I club team, in a fundraising game.
“It was a pretty good year,’’ Brown said. “We were the No. 6 seed in the [SECHC] tournament and upset the No. 3 seed.’’
Auburn didn’t have the roster issues that Texas Tech did this year. “We generally don’t cut anybody, but we do carry scratches, so this year we were rostered at 25,’’ Brown said. The club has had a handful of Minnesotans over the past few years, Brown said, and one, Frank Maslow of Cambridge, was a backup goalie this season. For the most part, Auburn draws players from the Atlanta, Birmingham and Nashville areas.
Maslow, who played two years of varsity and one year of JV at Cambridge-Isanti High School, vacationed in Alabama with his family while growing up. He chose Auburn because of the campus’ small-town feel. He sees the club competition as a step up from what he faced in his high school days.
“Naturally, it’s going to have better talent with the older players,’’ he said. “And when we play teams like Alabama who are trying to become an actual [NCAA] team, you can see the extensive skill gap between college and high school.’’
Both Texas Tech’s Farias and Auburn’s Brown said their clubs’ hockey players are getting caught up in the hoops hoopla, too, with both teams making the Final Four for the first time.
“Absolutely. It’s been crazy down here,’’ Brown said. “It’s amazing.’’
Editor's note: Photo courtesy Rebekah Bing photography and the Texas Tech hockey club.