On Friday night, the Las Vegas Wranglers wore hockey sweaters with the UNLV logo on front to benefit the Dave Rice Foundation. But if you wanted to watch actual UNLV students dump and chase the puck while wearing UNLV sweaters, you had to be at SoBe Ice Arena at the Fiesta Rancho on Friday and Saturday where the Rebels’ club hockey team was playing San Diego State.
Yes, UNLV has an ice hockey team, or at least it is represented by one, as the students with the UNLV logo on their sweaters receive neither diddly nor squat from the university.
(Actually, they do receive a small stipend from the school, but I’m told it wouldn’t be enough for a set of goalie’s pads.)
Regardless of what the NHL says about its outdoor Winter Classic or its outdoor Stadium Series, college club hockey is more like pond hockey — it seemed colder inside SoBe Arena than it was on the frozen ponds of my youth.
The main differences between college club hockey and pond hockey is that college club hockey players generally are older than pond hockey players. There also was a dead balloon clinging to the rafters, probably left over from a skating birthday party or something, and the nets were actual nets, instead of galoshes or beer cans. Also, this older kid with a giant spiked mohawk was relegated to watching from behind the Plexiglas.
Had this been pond hockey, the kid with the spiked mohawk would have skated a regular shift, and I bet he would have been a terror, like Dave Schultz or Tiger Williams.
San Diego State could have used the kid with the spiked mohawk because the Aztecs brought just nine skaters and two goalies. Thus, there wasn’t a lot of forechecking by San Diego State.
But the hockey wasn’t half bad.
Most of the players in college club hockey come from hockey backgrounds, and some have played junior hockey or have driven a Zamboni. So they know how to skate, and they know how to pass the puck, and they know how to shoot a one-timer from the top of the slot.
And they also know how to spear an opponent when they think the referee and linesmen are preoccupied.
When that happened Saturday, the referee and linesmen weren’t preoccupied, and so one of the Aztecs was disqualified from playing further hockey. That left them with only three extra skaters, and then there was even less forechecking by San Diego State.
No this wasn’t the Montreal Forum, or even Orleans Arena (for a few more games, anyway). This was hockey for the sake of hockey, the way it is played on frozen ponds, and by kids in alleys and in streets in places where it gets cold outside during winter.
“Absolutely,” said J.J. Hartmann, the UNLV coach. “Everybody that’s here — they don’t have to be here. They’re here because they want to play.”
Hartmann grew up in Colorado, went away to play junior hockey and then came home to center a line for the University of Denver, which has won seven NCAA national championships and sent more than 60 players to the NHL. The Pioneers almost made it to the Frozen Four his senior year, but that was when the regionals were played at home sites, and Denver lost at Michigan.
J.J. Hartmann loved playing hockey, too, but it’s an expensive sport to love. It costs to travel, it costs to rent the ice. It costs around $600 for a good pair of hockey skates; $200 for a stick; more than $1,000 for goalie pads. So the players pay dues, and they must hold a lot of bake sales and car washes through a Blueline Club.
UNLV plays as an independent in the American Collegiate Hockey Association’s Division II. The Rebels are 11-11-4 after splitting two games against San Diego State and won’t make the playoffs this year. There are 34 teams in the ACHA West, so club hockey seems to be growing, even in places where the sun shines a lot and there are cactuses.
But in many ways, it’s still like pond hockey, and that’s a good thing.
When the red light went on in the first period Saturday, the public address announcer said the goal was scored by No. 9, with assists by No. 7 and No. 77, because there weren’t programs or roster sheets. The game started late because a bantam game ran long, and then the Zamboni came out, and the guy driving it was Richie Crossley, No. 11, a sophomore defenseman for UNLV.
Crossley has worked at SoBe Arena since he was 16 to help pay for his hockey skates and sticks. Late in the first period, a woman wearing a checkered coat, sitting in front of me, began shouting at No. 11 on the Rebels.
This was Richie Crossley’s mom. Lisa Crossley just wanted to say hi to her son but he didn’t acknowledge her, probably because he was too busy playing hockey for the fun of it.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski