I was sitting in a locker room at the Oakland Ice Center with my University of Washington teammates waiting to go out for warmups at 12:30 a.m. on Sunday. Yes, 12:30 in the morning. Apparently, there was an issue with the Zamboni following an open skate session earlier in the night and, as a result, we had to wait until the wee hours to play our club hockey game against Cal-Berkeley. Additional logistical delays eventually pushed the start time back even further, and we couldn’t take the ice for warmups until 1 a.m. By this time, there were about 15 people left in the stands. It was hard to believe there were even that many.
Towards the end of the second period, Cal’s starting goalie injured his leg and couldn’t return to the contest. As luck would have it, their other goalie had been hurt the night before, so they were left without a backup. So, for the next few minutes, the game was played six on five. Cal chose to remedy the issue by quickly dressing their best player in the recently injured goalie’s gear. For the remainder of the game, they had a forward in net.
It was decided that the ice would not get resurfaced after the second period because by then it was 3 a.m., and all parties involved wanted to get home before the sun came up. Bad ice and all, the game ended around 3:30 a.m. with us winning the game, 9-3. I had a hat trick in one shift against that poor player-goalie in the third period. I’ll never forget that.
You are probably wondering why my teammates and I would put ourselves through such a game. The fact is that we all enjoy playing hockey so much that we willingly paid our own way to fly down to California from Seattle over a weekend to play a two-game series — with both games starting after midnight. We rented small cars and crammed into hotel rooms in order to cut costs. As far as having a team bus for the game? Yeah, right.
It was crazy, but I loved it.
That game against Cal was just one of many typical experiences for a club hockey player in the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA). It’s no secret that many players at this level play simply out of a love for the game. But for me, it turned out to be a stepping stone to playing overseas in Europe.
Let me rewind a bit.
Heading into my senior year of high school, I had drawn some interest from Union College, which would go on to win the national championship in 2014. But as it turned out, interest was all it was, and I knew I had to look elsewhere to continue my hockey career. I didn’t want to put all of my stock into hockey because, even though it was my dream, I was realistic about the long odds. This is why I didn’t consider the junior hockey route, which in a lot of ways can limit your options. I wanted to go to a big school that had big-time sports programs where I could keep playing hockey and also receive a great education.
So I picked the University of Washington.
I had heard stories of players from the ACHA making the rare jump to the pro ranks around the U.S. and over to Europe. I thought I could be one of those few who make it, given my past. I grew up in the State of Hockey (also known as Minnesota) and had played with many guys who ended up making it to the Division I level. I knew I was good enough to compete with them. But my path to get to where I thought I belonged would turn out to be a bit more complicated.
As you may have surmised, club hockey can be a bit challenging sometimes. Late games, minimal fan support, poor traveling arrangements, dumpy motels, limited ice time … do I need to keep going here?
Here are just a handful of other general funny complaints about club hockey that I’ve seen on Twitter:
When your opponent quits after 2 periods #clubhockeyproblems
— Joe Bensky (@JBensky7) October 18, 2014
But despite the hardships we run into playing in the ACHA, it was easily the best four years of my hockey career. Those conditions have a way of bringing people closer together, and ultimately my time as a club hockey player gave me many great memories that I’ll keep with me forever.
Our team at UW averaged a few hundred fans a game. This isn’t that surprising given that most people around UW didn’t even know that our team existed, and if they did, it was likely because our games were BYOB. Fans could show up and get drunk, which, I suppose, was at least something we had in common with the NHL.
We were a club sport, so we paid our own way to play and compete in the West Region, which comprised of roughly 40 teams like our own. For the most part, we played against other schools in the Pac-12 conference.
Each year, we played the University of Oregon in a four-game series for the battle for the I-5 Cup. For both teams, these games pretty much defined the season, so they were heated rivalry matchups. We hated them as much as they hated us. If the season series would end in a split, there would be a shootout after the fourth game to decide the winner.
My junior year, I was the team’s president and captain, so I ran the team on and off the ice. That included scheduling games. Oddly enough, of all of the team presidents that I worked with on scheduling games, Oregon’s team president was the nicest and most responsive. Our teams tend to draw larger crowds after the holidays, probably because the college football season is over, plus we were facing our biggest rival, so we coordinated to play on back-to-back weekends in January.
We split our first two games at home against the Ducks, despite our rowdy crowds comprised of mostly intoxicated students and a couple of frats that came out to support us. We hit the road to Eugene the following weekend. We dropped the first game, meaning our final game would be for all the marbles.
That final contest was intense, as you’d expect, and we hung on to win, 3-2, to even the series. Funny thing is that we managed to pull out that last game despite Oregon playing with seven men on the ice during the final minute. Nobody knew it until we watched the film afterwards. File it under #ClubHockeyProblems.
With the series tied at two games apiece, this left the I-5 Cup championship up to a three-man shootout to decide the winner.
Both teams’ first shooters missed on their opportunities. I was the second shooter. I remember my father sent me a message before the game in case I found myself in this position. He told me that if I decided to shoot and not deke, to make sure I didn’t get in too tight and cut off my own angle. You may see an opening with your eyes closer to the goalie, but to the puck’s eyes, that opening can close in an instant. My dad had watched me make this mistake too many times, I’m guessing.
His advice was on my mind as I circled around center ice before my attempt. I took the puck, and I noticed right away that the Oregon goalie stayed relatively deep in his net. This meant my best bet to score was to shoot quickly. I spotted an opening on the lower right side of the net and rifled it just inside the post to give my team a 1-0 lead in the shootout. I pointed to the sky, like I do a lot when I score, and just said to myself, “Thank God and thank Dad!”
Mentally, my father scored that goal for me. Oregon missed their second shot and we added another goal on our third attempt to take home the I-5 Cup.
That victory meant a lot to me because of the journey I’d taken to get to that point. When I first came to UW, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder. I knew I could be playing at a higher level, so I set out to prove that to myself as well as to everyone that crossed my path on the ice during those four years. Because I thought that might be all the time I had left to competitively play the sport I loved, nobody was going to tell me this was “just club hockey.”
I wasn’t actively trying to contact people to find a team willing to give me a shot after my senior year. I didn’t do anything. Some phrases my dad would always say to me around the rink were, “You never know who is watching,” and, “If you are good, someone will find you.”
These couldn’t have applied any better than to how the opportunity that would change my life came about.
I was in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico wrapping up spring break with a UW teammate and his family when I received a Facebook friend request from who I thought was a random man living in Finland. I thought nothing of it and ignored the request. He sent another friend request a couple of days later. This time, I thought something must be up, so I accepted it to investigate. I then received a long message from him about a team in Lapua, Finland called Virkia that was interested in having me play for them for the upcoming season. I later received a one-year contract.
Just prior to this, I prepared to finish out my last quarter of college at UW and get a job in the Seattle area. All that was left for me in hockey was to join a once-a-week beer league. I had my moments of fame on the ice in college — I hold all the single-season and career scoring records in the Pac-8 conference and I led the nation in scoring my junior year. I even got some love from fans after my last home game, signing autographs for kids and giving out my phone number to a UW sorority girl. I was somewhat content with my hockey career, but when I applied for jobs and did interviews, I always had this feeling of not wanting to just be a body that begins his career deteriorating in an office cube. I felt that I owed it to myself to keep playing at a higher level — or to at least try.
I took the opportunity with Virkia and punched my ticket to play in Finland for a season. Who knows what this will lead to in the future, but I would never have had this opportunity without playing in the ACHA. It turns out that with stats being made available online and the occasional streaming game, there is just enough exposure in the ACHA to keep your dreams alive.
I put my heart and soul into the UW hockey program, even though I wasn’t always sure what it would lead me to. But I learned that when you give a lot of yourself to something in life, it will give back to you in one way or another. I acquired some great relationships and lasting memories with awesome teammates during my time in college. As much as anything else, I’m thankful for that.
My path to being paid to play a game (a game!) in Europe was certainly not ideal, but the journey is what has made it special. I have a long way to go, and I hope this season is not my last. For those of you with hopes of chasing down your dreams, remember that you never know who is watching, and if you’re good, someone will find you — even from half way across the globe.