They return to the ice Wednesday, their immediate goal seemingly always shared with an unremitting desire to be more, to climb the final rung on a ladder that could prove too expensive a step.
But those with UNLV hockey have a plan and a desert prototype by which to follow.
Mostly, they have a dream: Turn the improbable into the inevitable.
Winter break is near its close, and the Skatin’ Rebels take their 11-4 record to Arizona State for games Wednesday and Thursday, when the season’s second half will commence with UNLV continuing its quest to qualify for the American Collegiate Hockey Association nationals for the second consecutive time.
That’s the immediate goal, being crowned the nation’s best Division I club team after falling in the quarterfinals last year.
The larger goal hasn’t changed, that final rung of reaching NCAA Division I status.
Neither has its biggest challenge: Finding a whole lot of money.
Zee Khan might have arrived to Las Vegas in 2012 to work for Mandarin Oriental, but his time is now consumed with a different purpose, to continue UNLV’s progress on the ice and help push it to even greater heights off it.
“We want to do this the right way,” said Khan, the team’s general manager. “We need to keep making people aware about our program and its strengths and stability and what we’re offering kids beyond hockey, the chance to come here and get a good education at a great school.”
They are a group of individuals with specific skill sets and roles, yet all motivated by a common objective. Khan. Anthony Greener as head coach. Nick Robone as assistant coach. Arturo Castro as club president.
If men’s golf under Dwaine Knight is UNLV’s gold standard for how an NCAA program should be run — it is — than those leading hockey are setting the bar incredibly high in club.
They just want more, is all.
Follow Arizona State’s path
Arizona State is the muse, the blueprint by which to follow, the school that transitioned from club to Division I status with a hybrid schedule in 2015-16 and now finds itself ranked 15th and fighting for an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament.
But while it’s the Arizona State club team the Rebels encounter this week, it’s a Sun Devils program that was born from $32 million in private donations and is in the midst of building a 5,000-seat arena that UNLV aspires to one day join on college hockey’s grandest stage.
Which brings us back to the part about money.
Khan estimates it would take $15 million to $20 million to make the transition solvent and set the Rebels up for the first five years at the NCAA level, where budgets competitive with the best programs hover around $2 million annually for a sport that allows 18 scholarships that can be spread over a large roster.
It has been beyond a community effort just to get the Rebels this far, from the extreme financial generosity of those at the Engelstad Foundation to the support of such entities as the Golden Knights and those medical professionals offering free services.
But you’re talking about a program that runs on a $500,000 budget and whose players pay $2,600 to $3,000 annually to pull on that sweater, meaning the disparity between the economics of a club and that final rung is immense.
“I’m a hockey fan and completely caught Golden Knights fever this past year,” UNLV athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois said. “My son and I have attended several UNLV club hockey games, and having worked with our program, I know what an exemplary job they are doing.
“However, in the next few years, our focus has to be on providing resources for our current programs first so they consistently compete for conference championships.”
1. Current programs mean football and men’s basketball.
2. She’s completely right.
Reed-Francois runs a Group of Five athletic department and all the budget shortfalls that come with it, meaning her only concern should be doing everything possible to somehow make her two most important programs healthy and successful enough to somehow turn the tide of a level of fan apathy that has reached its lowest point in decades.
Do you know what’s worse than not being any good in major sports like UNLV?
Not being any good with nobody caring enough to watch.
Devising the resume
So it lands where it always was going to for hockey, in the laps of a staff that has been diligent in its approach and yet forward enough thinkers to have devised a fairly impressive resume for potentially reaching a varsity standing.
In the hearts and minds and drive of Khan and Greener and Robone and Castro, and convincing those with means that theirs is a worthy investment far beyond a scoreboard.
Consider: The team has lost just three home games in two years. It regularly plays to a standing room-only City National Arena audience. It is working with the women’s lacrosse club as a way to also transition into NCAA status so as to ensure Title IX requirements are met, much like Arizona State did with lacrosse and women’s triathlon.
Hockey at the NCAA level absolutely can be a revenue sport, and when you consider the support those such as the Engelstad family and the Golden Knights have bestowed the program and that which both probably would offer in the future, this at least stands a chance of happening one day.
“UNLV is in a much better place in a lot of areas than we were at this point when it comes to things like facilities and infrastructure and fundraising and attendance and social media,” said Arizona State hockey coach Greg Powers, who won a national title at the club level with the Sun Devils before moving the program into varsity status. “But not on the ice. While they have made great strides there, it’s very important to prove yourself the best at the (club level) before taking the next jump. Keep making nationals, get to a few Final Fours, win a national championship. Put yourself over the top and be consistently elite.
“They have great people there. There is no reason that in time moving to (NCAA Division I) can’t happen under their leadership. You don’t need $100 million to make it happen.”
UNLV thinks it might not need a fourth of that, which means the immediate goal is still shared with an unremitting desire to be more.
But the most important part hasn’t changed: Improbable to inevitable takes a whole lot of money.
Contact columnist Ed Graney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.