Written by Michael Rouleau
Willimantic, Conn. - In its fifth season, Eastern Connecticut State University's club hockey team is developing into a force to be reckoned with. This past season the team played in the Northeast Collegiate Hockey Association (NECHA)--a subset of the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA)--and concluded the season with a 17-3 record, tying them for first place in the Colonial Conference of the NECHA.
Five years ago, when the original group of students gathered to form the club, they played informal games according to an inconsistent schedule. One day the group came upon John Brancati when he was practicing with his son at Bolton Ice Palace. Soon after, Brancati--who has years of coaching experience with youth and high school teams--agreed to be the head coach of Eastern's club team.
"There wasn't much of a team when I first joined. We had little talent and not much structure," said Sam Spellman '14, a team captain who has played right wing with the club for four years while majoring in accounting. "We probably didn't have 17 wins combined in my first three years. The program is making huge strides in being seen as a respectable team for competition."
The ACHA is a collegiate hockey association with more than 400 teams nationwide--even schools with NCAA hockey programs have club teams in the ACHA. Because Eastern is still new to the association, the team underwent a "probationary period" this season and was not eligible to participate in playoffs or championship games--despite their conference-leading record.
"We got lucky this year and picked up a lot of good players. Also, the guys who helped start the program have stayed loyal and kept on playing," said Jeremy Proto '14, a team captain who has played right wing with the club for four years while majoring in business administration. "We have a real solid group of guys who share one thing in common: a diehard passion for the game of hockey."
The team has completed three preliminary seasons with the NECHA. These trial seasons are intended to test a prospective team's commitment to the league and gauge its playing style and sportsmanship. At the NECHA's spring meeting on April 19, the team will learn of their official placement in the Colonial Conference. In fact, since the team did so well, they may be moved to the American Conference, which is more competitive.
"We hope to be placed in the American Conference, but we'll be happy with whatever the NECHA decides," said Assistant Coach Galen Byram, who has led the team's defensive strategy for four years. "We are very happy with how we've played and a bunch of guys at the association have been asking about Eastern."
This year the team consisted of 23 players--all from Connecticut--six of whom will be graduating this May. "We're getting more exposure, more participation and more talent," said Coach Brancati. "The guys have been real committed. Our core will be returning next year; it's safe to say we'll have at least 20 guys to start off the season."
Since the team is not part of the NCAA or an official intercollegiate varsity sport at Eastern, team members must conduct fundraising efforts to afford ice time, transportation, referees and other expenses. For the 2013-14 season, they put together a team booklet that generated more than $2,000 by offering advertising space to local businesses.
Currently the team's home rink is in South Windsor, but they are working to relocate to Bolton Ice Palace. This location closer to campus would boost fan attendance and cut down on transportation costs.
In order to play on Eastern's club team, there is a $500 yearly player's fee. Team jerseys are provided by Eastern, but players need their own gear. "Compared to other leagues, Eastern's club team is inexpensive and a great value," said Coach Brancati.
"The best part about the game is it's unlike any other sport. There is a serious brotherhood among hockey players," said Proto. "It's one of the only sports that guys start playing when they're three and don't stop until they're 50. It's just that good."