Weber State University Magazine Spring 2014 : Page 12

THE PUCK STOPS HERE American sports writer Paul Gallico once described hockey as “a fast body-contact game played by men with clubs in their hands and knives laced to their feet.” It’s an unforgiving sport, one that combines the game frequency of basketball with the physical intensity of football. It’s going on right here at Weber State, and it’s being played at a nationally competitive level. Matt Gerrish ’10 UNIVERSITY COMMUNICATIONS PHOTOGRAPHY BY Christine Ferrario PICTURES

Cool Under Pressure

Matt Gerrish

American sports writer Paul Gallico once described hockey as “a fast body-contact game played by men with clubs in their hands and knives laced to their feet.”<br /> <br /> It’s an unforgiving sport, one that combines the game frequency of basketball with the physical intensity of football. It’s going on right here at Weber State, and it’s being played at a nationally competitive level.<br /> <br /> Often in the shadow of WSU’s marquee sports, the club hockey team is in the midst of another successful season. The Wildcats aren’t strangers to winning, and are currently seeking a second-consecutive appearance at the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Division II national tournament.<br /> <br /> “Last year was my first time ever going to ACHA nationals,” said left wing and team captain Braxton Green. “We had a real shot at winning it all. We blew a lead in the second game against Penn State, and if you lose one game at nationals, you are pretty much done.This season, I think with some of the teams we’ve beaten and the depth we have, we have a good chance to go make a big impact at nationals.”<br /> <br /> Just like basketball, hockey spans the fall and spring semesters, and through the first half of the season, the Wildcats picked up key victories over rivals Utah, Utah State and BYU, also knocking off Boise State, Denver and Montana State.<br /> <br /> Despite good times on the ice, WSU hockey is a club sport, which comes with a unique set of challenges.<br /> <br /> Club sports aren’t NCAA-affiliated and are almost entirely self-sufficient. Most teams receive little or no financial backing from their universities, and coaches are often hired on a volunteer basis.Weber State manages its club sports Through Campus Recreation, and individual teams are provided modest budgets on a year-to-year basis, a blessing club sports don’t have at most schools.<br /> <br /> “The Campus Rec program at Weber State is extremely club sport-friendly, especially compared to other schools,” said alumnus and longtime WSU hockey writer Jon McBride ’08. “They’ve had dedicated positions to help the teams, making sure they are compliant and managing things correctly. They do have a budget, but it’s definitely not enough to completely fund a team.<br /> <br /> “You have players who are paying to play versus players who are on scholarship.<br /> There is a lot of sacrifice that goes into Weber State hockey. Players are paying anywhere from $1,500 to $2,500 per year, and that money goes back into the team.”<br /> <br /> Required amenities such as equipment, jerseys, ice time and marketing materials come out of the pooled fund. But the biggest — and perhaps most necessary — expense is travel.<br /> <br /> “To have any chance at nationals you have to make regionals,” said WSU head coach Joe Pfleegor. “To have a chance at regionals you have to be ranked in the top 10. To get ranked there, you have to travel and play the top teams. There’s not a lot in it for them to come and play us here if we are a bad team. So we go Out on the road to face them and get better.That’s where the travel adds up.”<br /> <br /> Helping ease the blow of program costs, the team has received generous donations from local benefactors, including Kimber Kable founder Ray Kimber.<br /> <br /> “Ray’s been such a huge help, and we can’t say enough about him,” Green said. “Not only is he a big donor to us and the university, but his relationships have helped us set up booths in more places, so we can promote the team to a wider audience.”<br /> <br /> Despite the challenges, the Wildcats are still thriving. Since the players pay their own way, they take ownership in the team. It’s a special sense of pride that helps them build a product for which they are solely responsible.<br /> <br /> “This year alone, our attendance has easily doubled or even tripled from last season,” Green said. “Nobody wants to watch a losing team. We are doing much better now, so there is much more recognition on campus. Before, people were stunned to hear there even was a hockey team, and now you can walk through the Shepherd Union Building and overhear someone saying, ‘There’s a hockey game tonight.’”<br /> <br /> While the team has had consistent fan support since beginning play in 1995 — one year after construction of the Weber County Ice Sheet — it has experienced a fan resurgence that can trace its roots back to around 2005.<br /> <br /> “During those years, Weber State’s most popular men’s sports, such as basketball and football were really struggling,” McBride said. “It was before basketball coach Randy Rahe came in, and the very beginning of the Ron Mc- Bride football era. You went to those games and there were a lot of alumni and community members, but the student section was just not there. Hockey games are where the student body really seemed to gravitate and thrive. The students started coming alive there and were passionate about what they were watching, especially when WSU played rivals like Utah State.Those games are still absolute bedlam.”<br /> <br /> Historically, the key to Weber State’s hockey success and fan support has boiled down to leadership, and Pfleegor has anchored that success.<br /> <br /> Pfleegor has been a part of WSU hockey for the better part of a decade. He began at Weber State as an assistant coach in 2000, mentoring under Utah hockey legend Rob Larsen. He helped the Wildcats reach the Division I Final Four in three consecutive seasons, which all ended in heartbreaking double-overtime losses to eventual national champions.Pfleegor took over head coaching duties in 2004 before leaving the team in 2006.<br /> <br /> “I stepped down because of work,” Pfleegor said. “This is a volunteer job, so it got to the point where I had to make one decision or another, and I had to take a few years to work on my business.It was difficult, because I love the Game so much, but you have to be realistic. It’s a full-time commitment.”<br /> <br /> After Pfleegor’s departure, the team dropped from Division I to Division II and experienced a period of lackluster recruiting and inconsistent play. That all changed once he returned in 2012.<br /> <br /> “They had a lot of problems, lost players and didn’t win a lot of games,” Pfleegor Said. “I was coaching the Ogden Mustangs (a local Junior A program) in 2011-12 and after that season was over, Braxton called and said, ‘We want to make a coaching change and make you head coach.’ So, I jumped on it.”<br /> <br /> It didn’t take long for his squad to undergo a dramatic transformation, as WSU finished the 2012-13 season with a 26-10-3 record in his first year back at the helm. The Wildcats earned a No. 4 ranking in the ACHA West Region before falling at the national tournament.<br /> <br /> The turnaround didn’t go unnoticed, as Pfleegor earned the Utah Amateur Hockey Association Coach of the Year. As much as he appreciated that honor, he has an even bigger goal in mind.<br /> <br /> “I want to rebuild this program to where it used to be when we were at the Division I level,” Pfleegor said. “You look at the facilities we have, and to not have a great team with those resources would be a shame. We should have 28 healthy players by this spring, and that will give us the opportunity to continue on our mission — to win a national championship.”

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