DEKALB, Ill. (AP) - Practices in West Dundee. Camps in Geneva. The presence is strong for the Northern Illinois University hockey club in the suburbs.
On campus, however, the team struggles with visibility among students.
“We’re at a 19,000-student school and no one knows we are here,” NIU coach Nick Madonia said. “But at the same time, West Dundee supports us like crazy. It is a weird situation. If we were on campus, we would draw 2,000 students a game. Everyone loves hockey now. But you can’t go to a Blackhawks game if you live in DeKalb without putting a month of planning into it. You can’t just say, ‘Hey, it’s Friday night and the Hawks are playing . Let’s run.’ But, if you were to say, ‘Hey, U of I is in town and they’re playing at the Convo.’ I feel like we would be embraced like crazy. We need to find a way to reach our students better. I feel like right now, the students don’t understand what ‘club’ hockey is. We need the campus to understand that there is good hockey, close. I’ve never heard someone say, ‘I went to that NIU hockey game and man, it sucked.’ “
While the Huskies are stuck playing and practicing so far from DeKalb, former player and current general manager Ian Kalanges has overseen a period of immense growth for the program.
“When I started playing in 2004, we were closer to a traveling men’s league team than a collegiate club hockey program,” Kalanges said. “We used a school bus to get to games, we were playing out of three different rinks and we didn’t have basic amenities. Now, we have branded bags, warmups, deals with CCM on sticks and gear, our own private locker room and we travel on chartered buses. We also missed having our top team move from ACHA (American Colligate Hockey Association) D2 to D1 by a single vote last season. We have certainly come a long way from where it was when I started here.”
College hockey is much different from most college sports in that the game is just as popular, if not more so, at the club level as opposed to the NCAA level. The NCAA level has only 50 teams in men’s D1. While there are many big names that college sports fans may recognize, such as Michigan State, Minnesota and Wisconsin, there are also many small schools that are in the NCAA D1 for hockey that aren’t D1 in any other sport, such as Bemidji State University. ACHA also has a healthy mix of both big name and smaller universities. Kalanges said the main difference ultimately comes down to money.
“Some people honestly get offended if you call ACHA hockey a club sport,” Kalanges said. “It is basically the hockey version of the NAIA for other sports. For most schools, ACHA hockey is not a varsity sport that is fully funded by the school’s athletic department. NCAA D1 can give players athletic scholarships and they’re fully funded by the university. NCAA D3 can give academic scholarships and are also funded by their university. ACHA might give academic scholarships and might be funded by the schools.”
The bid for D1 could bode huge for the Huskies in recruiting. Madonia, coach of the Huskies D2 team, said that the growth of the program could be exponential if it were to go D1.
“A lot of the recruits we talk to want that D1 label,” Madonia says. “We will lose recruits to schools like University of Illinois, Illinois State and Robert Morris, which have D1 teams. When we get that D1 distinction, I think our program will explode. We have always had premier facilities. I can’t think of any program that doesn’t have a rink on campus that is owned and operated by the university who gets taken care of like we do. We play in a shopping mall food court when we go to Iowa. You’re literally playing a game while watching people eat Cinnabons.”
Recruiting isn’t the only way that hockey players find themselves playing for the Huskies. Huskies goalie JoJo Durrbeck, who also serves as the club president, had to sell himself to the program, rather than have the program sell themselves to him. Durrbeck says that being a bit of a self-made man makes being the Huskies goaltender extra sweet to him.
“I take a lot of pride in the strides that I have made in college,” Durrbeck said. “You come in, have to tell the team what you are all about. You don’t think much of those guys because they come to you. You have to go to tryouts and prove yourself. I feel like I did a pretty good job of that. I stuck on the D3 team, which was good for developing my skill and grow into the player and grow up in the organization.”
The Huskies get much of their attendance from both East and West Dundee, as well as the other towns within the area. Kalanges has worked tirelessly to promote the program to local schools and hockey clubs in the area and it has paid off. The Huskies have a strong following and treat their younger fans to autographs and player meet and greets after the games. Although it may not seem like much, Madonia said he knows that these interactions can mean a lot to young, wide-eyed hockey fans like the ones that fill the bleachers at Leafs Centre.
“We’ve always had a very strong youth hockey connection,” Madonia said. “When we played (Fox Valley Ice Arena), we had a great relationship with the Cyclones. Now that we are at Leafs, we send six or eight skaters once a week to their youth practices to give pointers and build a relationship with the kids. We get big crowds at games because the kids have connections with our players. They’re never going to get to meet Patrick Kane or Jonathan Toews. Those guys might be their favorite players, but there isn’t that connection like there is with our players.”
Durrbeck said he thinks the team would be a hit if they played on campus.
“A campus following would mean a lot to us,” Durrbeck said. “The biggest problem is that our rink is kind of far away. We do party buses for certain games that will bring people from campus. If we had a rink on campus, I think we would draw really well.”
Source: The (DeKalb) Daily Chronicle, https://bit.ly/2tBj4aD
Information from: The Daily Chronicle, https://www.daily-chronicle.com
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