I celebrated this rebirth of college hockey - sorry NCAA, the ACHA has you beat for allowing games in September - by attending an ACHA Division 2 game between Akron and Ohio State. In a match that read like an early-season game for both teams, with plenty of turnovers followed by unfinished chances both ways and throughout, the Zips managed to barely nurse a 3-0 second-period lead to the finish line, winning 4-2 following an empty-netter.
|Akron goalie Max Miller, a Medina, OH native, turned in an excellent effort against Ohio State.|
Akron plays at a rink called the Center Ice Sports Complex. Not only is it an off-campus facility, it's in an entirely different county, its location in North Canton about 17 miles from the sports facilities owned by UA. There's actually a (very) tenuous PSU connection to the building in the form of Icers Hall-of-Famer Don Coyne, who briefly played there with the UHL's Ohio Gears, which moved from Saginaw in the middle of 1999-2000. The team suspended operations after that season, eventually folding after a couple failed attempts to re-christen itself with a new arena in nearby Massillon that never came.
Zips hockey also has a pretty unremarkable history. In stark contrast to traditional archrival Kent State, which has had a long run of non-varsity hockey, and was even NCAA Division I from 1986 through 1994, Akron only started up in 2006 as an ACHA Division 3 program. In 2010, the Zips elevated to D2, where they remain today. While Akron has done reasonably well for the most part - they have spent a lot of last two seasons flirting with the poll in D2's Southeast Region - it has never progressed beyond that. In fact, their sole true appearance on the national radar was the result of an exploding hockey bag early in their first D2 season. Seriously.
A hockey bag which appeared to belong to a University of Akron hockey player was blown up by a bomb squad after it was determined to be a suspicious package, according to a report.Things are drastically different now. Under second-year coach Michael Sadjadi, a 26-year-old former junior goalie from Fairbault, MN, the program seems to have a new focus. It now receives regular media coverage - for positive things. It's much more active in fundraising and community outreach. The recruiting, which has generally focused on Northeast Ohio high school and low-level junior players (particularly from the Wooster Oilers of the Great Lakes Junior Hockey League), is on the upswing. And the on-ice payoff is starting to follow. Last weekend, the Zips earned their first-ever win over an ACHA D1 program, topping Canisius 4-3.
According to the website of WEWS, police in Akron, Ohio, responded to two suspicious package calls Wednesday morning, neither of which were determined to contain explosives. One of the packages was reportedly a bag belonging to a University of Akron hockey player. The report says the hockey bag was detonated by the Summit County Bomb Squad.
They also have The Dream:
The huge support finally drew the attention of the Akron athletic department late last season, as several officials, including athletic director Tom Wistrcill attended a home contest. Though nothing has been made official, it’s become common knowledge that UA is seriously discussing the possibility of adding a D1 sport (or two) soon. And with plans for a new basketball arena currently a hot topic, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that a dual-purpose arena has been discussed.So why a post about Akron? Well firstly, I see a lot of parallels with Penn State, and how our present circumstances developed. It seems to me like the Zips are currently at the point the Icers hit sometime between the opening of the Greenberg Ice Pavilion in 1981 and 1987, when Joe Battista returned as head coach. In my observation, the Icers of the 1970s had the varsity dream, but it wasn't realistic. Once the Ice Pavilion's size indefinitely delayed that dream, the team refocused on building an support organization that was the envy of many in the varsity ranks. That organization, along with the sheer force of Battista's will, is ultimately what led to Terry Pegula and the NCAA, not the previous approach of merely hoping to be handed a capable rink by the athletic department. It seems as if Akron now has that same sense of purpose that drove the Icers for about 30 years, and hopefully they won't have to wait as long before joining fellow MAC schools Miami, Western Michigan and Bowling Green among the ranks of NCAA DI programs.
More than that though, it helps me confront some of mixed feelings I have about the NCAA transition, as attending the Zips-Buckeyes tilt helped remind me why I became involved with Penn State hockey in the first place, and why I'm still here today.
At the game, I spoke with Kevin Davis, who is in charge of marketing for UA hockey. He described to me how he sold the ads on the boards, then stayed at the rink until the middle of Thursday night/Friday morning to put them up himself before returning early Friday morning to finish his preparations. Signage, streamers and balloons were ubiquitous to the point where Center Ice felt like a campus rink, and I'm sure he and a small but dedicated group of volunteers had something to do with that as well. The game presentation was nearly flawless, worthy of the Icers. And Davis packed the place out too. I have no clue how many seats the rink contains (probably in the neighborhood of 800-1000), but they were all full.
The atmosphere, in my judgment, was only surpassed in any obvious sense by Penn State and Ohio among ACHA venues I've attended. Davis and Sadjadi get marketing in the same way Battista does: there was a Score-O contest (with a car, which was driven on to the ice, as the prize), merchandise sales, a raffle, and a postgame autograph session, all things I've seen at the Ice Pavilion.
It may seem a little crazy to invest so much of yourself in non-varsity hockey, but that's precisely what so many of us did over the years at PSU. I can't speak for every Hockey Management Association member or support staffer ever, but to me, the Icers were easily the most important thing I did at Penn State - much more than school itself or the football team. My Friday night social life during the season was tearing down after the game, which generally took until after midnight for the 9 p.m. puck drops, followed by a late dinner at Perkins or Eat 'n Park (the two 24-hour eateries removed from downtown, and therefore not filled with drunk people), back home to catch up on other ACHA scores, then into bed for the quick turnaround on Saturday afternoon. And I loved every second of it. Well, other than fetching the six-foot sub for the booster hospitality room before games, I could have done without that.
I think there's a closeness to the program that comes from a certain level of involvement, which will be impossible to duplicate with the NCAA program. I can write this blog, obsessively follow every little development, donate money, have season tickets in the front row, but realistically, I'll never be as much a part of the program as I was then. And neither will anyone else who isn't a grown-up employed by Penn State or playing for the team. Yes, the plan is to keep HMA going, but from a distance, it seems like it will mostly be about limited marketing activities and game day operations while the most important stuff will be handled by the athletic department. Future HMA members, for example, are unlikely to be that socially awkward college student trying to sell ads door to door, as I once was (okay, I'm still socially awkward).
So yeah, I'm a little sad for the loss of all of that, while also a little envious of Davis and others all over the ACHA who are truly invested in a way not possible in the NCAA (even for many employees, I have to imagine that it's more job than passion).
There's still plenty of work to do at UA, of course. The team hasn't won on a significant level, it remains to be seen if the off-ice side can be maintained through a whole season let alone several, and to that end it would be nice if Davis had a little more help. The distance that remains was underscored by the people who sat behind me and had evidently never heard "sieve" or "it's all your fault" before. So time will tell if Sadjadi ends up being the Battista of Akron, but at the very least, the early signs are encouraging.
Ultimately, of course, my feelings of loss are outweighed by those of excitement - after all, NCAA status was the goal all along, and PSU finally made it. It's entirely possible that I'll forget all about what I've expressed here by October 6th when I'm skipping the Zips' next home weekend to live blog the NCAA debut of the Nittany Lion women. But hopefully you'll forgive me if one day, when this blog has run its course, I end up volunteering with Akron or another ACHA team local to wherever life takes me between now and then.