The American Collegiate Hockey Association might not boast the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s high profile, but it boasts more college hockey players and is rapidly growing.
Since forming in 1991, the ACHA has ballooned to around 460 teams, split into three divisions of men’s hockey and two women’s divisions.
While the ACHA has members all across the U.S., the organization has particularly thrived in the newer hockey markets such as the Southwest and places like Florida and Tennessee, where high-level players don’t have as many opportunities to play NCAA hockey after high school.
“With the growth of hockey in the U.S., especially in the southern states, college hockey, from an NCAA perspective, didn’t really keep up,” said ACHA Executive Director Chris Wilk. “As there’s more kids participating at the youth level, obviously there’s that many more kids that would like to continue playing when they go to college, and we’ve kind of filled that void.
“There’s not many [NCAA] Division III schools. If you look at the number of kids playing baseball, football, soccer, any of those other sports, there’s a lot of NCAA Division III schools to fill that desire to play, and there’s not with hockey.”
Going the ACHA route can be a good option for that second tier of talent that can’t crack NCAA Division I lineups.
“We are across the country, in every state except Hawaii, and we’ve probably got over 11,000 players playing in any one year,” declared ACHA President Marshall Stevenson. “It’s good for the kids because it gives them the opportunity to play. If they were able to play at Boston College or BU or Notre Dame, they’d be playing there. But if they aren’t, there’s still some really good kids out there. So we fill a gap.”
While NCAA Division I schools are allotted a certain number of scholarships for ice hockey, free rides are not allowed at Division III schools (there is no Division II for hockey), and those smaller schools are usually the ones the ACHA competes with for players.
While ACHA schools are not obligated to adhere to Title IX, in which schools must provide equal opportunity to men’s and women’s sports, there are multiple factors that leave its programs at a disadvantage.
“The main thing is, an NCAA sport is through the school’s athletic department and paid for by the athletic department,” Wilk explained. “ACHA teams are mostly through another division of the school, mostly recreational services, and most of the funding from ACHA teams comes from the team itself, i.e., the players. That’s the main difference.”
A wide range of schools participate in the ACHA, from huge universities such as UCLA and the University of Oklahoma to small schools like Lindenwood University of St. Charles, Mo., or Adrian College from southern Michigan, both past national champions in hockey.
Last season, Minot State of North Dakota won the ACHA men’s Division I championship while the University of Minnesota took top honors on the women’s side. Michigan State won men’s Division II while West Chester University of Pennsylvania won the women’s tournament, and Adrian won men’s Division III.
Some schools actually ice teams in both the NCAA and the ACHA, and while there are rules dictating that NCAA players cannot play in the ACHA in the same season, there can still be disparities between different ACHA schools based on the resources their teams have access to.
One area in which more money in the program translates to better performance is in coaching. Most ACHA schools cannot afford a full-time, professional coach.
“The structure varies greatly,” Wilk said. “For men’s Division I and women’s Division I, most of the coaches receive a part-time stipend. There are a few programs that are fully funded, where the school’s paying for all the expenses for the team, the players don’t pay anything, and the coach is a full-time position. That’s probably less than five percent of the teams. And then it goes all the way down to the volunteer coach that receives no pay, and that’s probably the majority.”
Even with limited hockey staffs in place, recruiting players can be a serious business.
“It is pretty competitive,” Wilk said. “There is a lot of recruiting that goes on at all the levels, but again, it varies.
“Men’s Division I is very competitive. There’s a lot of recruiting going on. In order to be in the top half, you really have to recruit. And then as you go down to men’s Division II, men’s Division III, the structure changes, the recruiting is probably a little bit less.”
One association that has helped the ACHA raise its profile considerably is USA Hockey. The ACHA provides USA Hockey with players for both the men’s and women’s national teams at the World University Games, which were most recently held Dec. 11-21 in Trentino, Italy. The U.S. women won a bronze medal while the men finished fourth.
“We’re affiliated with USA Hockey, so it was a logical conclusion that the players would come from an organization that they have at the college level,” Stevenson said. “We’re getting good financial support at USA Hockey, because it’s an expensive proposition. I think that we put a good show on over there ... but we’d settle for any of the medals, men or women.”
As for a general perception that the ACHA isn’t legitimate college hockey, that reputation has been gradually changing, too.
“It’s always a struggle,” Stevenson admitted. “At the American Hockey Coaches meetings, we’re just called the ‘non-varsity,’ that’s their way of designating us. ‘Club hockey’ has the wrong connotation, certainly to the product that we try to put on the ice, in terms of our organization and the rules and regulations that we follow. So it is a struggle, but it is easier today than it was yesterday and than it was two years ago and 20 years ago. We have good procedures and a policy manual and we stick to it. You stick to the rules and you’re not by the seat of your pants, you’ll get more respect with time.”
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The routine for most adult hockey players on days during which they don’t have games might go something like this: early alarm clock; get yourself to work and possibly get kids ready for school; work a full day; come home and eat dinner; take care of household tasks; plop down in front of the television by around 8 p.m., exhausted from the day and ready to sleep within a couple of hours.
As such, the routine on days with games can throw a major curveball into that schedule – particularly when you factor in the possibility of late start times to accommodate limited ice time.
As an example, games in Dallas’ adult hockey program, an offshoot of the NHL’s Stars, generally start between 9:30 and 10:45 p.m. on weekdays. They can start as late as 11:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, says Keith Andresen, who helps run the leagues.
That’s not uncommon across the country, and those late-night games bring about some unique challenges when it comes to being mentally and physically prepared to play. Here are some tips on how to not only survive but also thrive on the ice even as the clock strikes midnight.
One of the biggest challenges is making sure you have the right amount of fuel, as a player, to make it through a hockey game at a time when you might often be comfortably sleeping.
Sean Cromarty, a former NCAA Division I player at Colorado College and currently both the owner of Competitive Advantage Training and the coach of a junior team, said he advises players of all ages to consider bringing small portable meals to the rink.
He said that something like a six-pack fitness backpack, designed to fit six small meals, such as protein shakes and sandwiches, can be a great tool to stay fueled on gameday. If that sounds excessive, at least consider the time you’re eating your big meal of the night. Eating four hours before the game, while adding an energy snack leading up to game time, is a good guideline.
Postgame, Cromarty offered advice about protein shakes. If that’s your recovery meal of choice – with or without a postgame beer or two – he suggests having a shake that uses casein protein instead of whey protein.
“It absorbs in your body slower than whey protein,” Cromarty says. “Even if you use whey during the day, it’s good to use casein at night because it’s better as you sleep.”
Warm-up Exercises Are Key
A good warmup is important no matter when your game begins, but it’s particularly important when your body is about to be pushed at times when it might normally be at rest – particularly if much of your day is spent at a sedentary activity like deskwork.
“It’s really about developing a consistent routine,” Cromarty says. “It doesn’t have to be really detail-oriented, just something where your body knows, ‘This is what I do before I play.’”
Cromarty suggests stretching and working with a foam roller before putting gear on. Adding in some light hand-eye coordination work – something as simple as kicking around a soccer ball or working on some quick stickhandling drills with a weighted ball – can also help.
Get Your Head in the Game
The real grind of a late-night start is mental. While late night adult hockey isn’t quite the pressure cooker that NCAA hockey was when Cromarty was in college, some of the same rules apply.
“If you’re a little more mentally engaged than the guy next to you, you’re already winning,” Cromarty says.
That means doing the mind work necessary to normalize an activity such as playing hockey late at night that really isn’t normal for your body.
“Visualize the rink. Visualize the time of day, how the game is going to go,” Cromarty says. “The more you mentally rehearse it, the more it’s second nature and you can react and let your natural athleticism take over.”
The consequences of not being mentally prepared to play that late can be as simple as poor play, but the effects can be even more troubling than just letting in a goal.
“You’re potentially more prone to injury if you’re more mentally tired,” Cromarty says.
Nobody wants that. Few people want 11:30 p.m. ice time, either, but at the end of the day, hockey is hockey – and we want to play.