By Herbert Kyles
Club hockey no longer refers to recreational hockey players in mismatched uniforms scrimmaging aimlessly. Club players do not “play to ten” with Johnny, from Room 220, playing goal for the first time. Club hockey, now referred to as Non-scholarship or Non-varsity hockey, is organized under the ACHA (est. 1993).
These players wear matching uniforms and socks, travel the country playing each other, practice regularly, utilize coaching staffs and even have equipment deals and fan bases. Although the ACHA intends to act as an option for the high school player who does not want to play junior hockey, these hockey programs do not lack talent. While a lot of high school players move directly to ACHA , take a look at the top programs in ACHA D1 and D2. They contain good high school players and quality junior players.
The reason behind the development of ACHA hockey is active recruiting. This year, Lindenwood University beat Iowa State University to win the ACHA Division 1 National Championship. Between those two teams only FOUR players total on both rosters did not play junior hockey prior to their arrival. Supporting the low percentage, slightly fewer than 15% of players in the ACHA Semi-finals rosters came directly from high school or midget hockey. In fact only one school of the sixteen at the national championships had a roster of non-junior players, SUNY-Canton.
Don’t believe junior hockey recruiting is limited to only the best of D1…ACHA Division 2 programs snatch junior hockey players too!
Davenport University, a top program at the Division 2 level, has THREE NCAA Division III transfers, SIXTEEN Canadian Jr. B and American Jr. A players and even an NCAA Division I transfer. They round their roster out with a couple Canadian Jr. C players, a couple high school players and an ACHA D1 transfer. Ten years ago it would be unimaginable to see a former NCAA Division I player on an ACHA Division II roster, but times have changed.
With less NCAA Division I programs and the rise in tuition at private institutions with NCAA Division III programs, a lot of kids cannot afford to attend these schools. Not to mention, if you are not playing in the USHL or a top Canadian Tier II league, it is an uphill battle to get the coveted full scholarship.
Many of the top ACHA programs are located at large NCAA Division I schools that cannot field a hockey team because of Title IX, but they offer athletic, academic, financial and social perks that NCAA Division III schools do not. ACHA programs like Robert Morris University and Niagara University have NCAA Division I facilities on campus for athletic use. Schools like Lindenwood University are NAIA and fund their programs immensely.
Don’t believe me, check out their web site. The school purchased a rink for the program.
In-State players receive greatly discounted tuition and schools like Arizona State University are known for their incredible social atmosphere.
ACHA programs use the university’s niches to attract student-athletes to their programs by offering opportunities such as a wide variety of majors or a large fan base. Many of these fans do not know ACHA from NCAA, so you are not a “club player”, but a hockey player. American born junior players attend these schools because after a couple years of junior hockey, I can tell you from personal experience that your focus shifts.
While you still love and work as hard as you can at hockey, you realize that there will be a life afterwards and you need to find the best fit post-secondary institution to prepare you for that life.
Canadian players understand this and will play ACHA to not only keep playing hockey, but get an education from an American university.
As for the progression and legitimacy of ACHA hockey, the future looks bright. NCAA hockey should not take this as a knock against their programs, but understand that the ACHA is turning into competition
The presence of the ACHA allows players without a feasible NCAA offer to keep playing at a lot of universities (there are over 300 programs) while still giving the high school player who does not want to play junior hockey the option to continue. With ACHA players beginning to pursue minor professional opportunities, you can expect not only the level of competition within the ACHA to rise, but the level of competition for professional roster spots. At this rate, within the next ten years believe there will be some ACHA players making it as high as the AHL.
While, high school players find numerous spots around the ACHA, junior players should not shy away from a program because it is not NCAA. These programs even employ strength and conditioning programs to improve, along with goaltending and other position-specific coaches.
Basically watch out, because these programs mean business.