The puck drops at 9 p.m., which seems like a late start time but when you share your home with local high school and adult rec hockey teams, figure skating clubs and anyone in the general public who wants to plop down a few bucks to zip around the rink under disco lights on a Friday night, you take whatever slot is available.
Regardless of the sport, any Backyard Brawl matchup is a big deal (A WVU-Pitt shuffleboard showdown would draw a raucous crowd). There’s no challenge tonight in filling up the 400-seat arena.
As blasting rap music permeates the locker room, players suit up and go through their pre-game routines, like taping up their sticks.
For senior defenseman Tyler Collard, he devours a Dairy Queen Blizzard before every game.
“If I get a frozen treat in me, I’m feeling good,” Collard said.
After the playing of the national anthem, he’ll crack open some smelling salts and take a generous whiff. He says it clears out the airways and elevates the heart rate.
WVU went on to sweep the season series with Pitt that evening and clinch a playoff spot in the process.
“Playing Pitt is one of the greatest feelings,” Collard said. “Those games, man, are just different. The rivalry between us is really, really healthy. Everybody wants to take each other’s heads off. There’s a lot of tension. But when we beat them, it really feels good.”
If you weren’t there live at the rink or following it online like a diehard, you were probably unaware that a game even happened.
SENIOR SEAN VANDAMME, OF CRYSTAL LAKE, ILL., TAPES UP HIS HOCKEY STICK BEFORE HITTING THE ICE.
Welcome to the Club
At the end of the day, hockey is the Jan Brady in the WVU sports world.
Games are not televised nor do they receive even a hint of the marketing and hoopla that accompanies football and basketball.
For away games, “We pay for University buses to drive us or we’ll rent our own vans if it’s more cost-effective,” said A.J. Sturges, head coach of WVU hockey.
Even if it’s for a game in Alabama, they drive to the games. “It’s a lot more grassroots,” Sturges said. “You can’t take anything for granted. The kids learn all about what it takes to put on a hockey game.”
At WVU, hockey is not an official varsity sport. It’s a club sport run by students. Therefore, it doesn’t fall under the umbrella of WVU Athletics. That means no large-scale funding, scholarships, facilities, equipment and everything else that comes with major university sports.
Players – who are from as far away as California, Dallas, Vermont and Canada – even have to pay to be on the team. Much of its revenue is generated through ticket sales, apparel, hockey camps and donations.
This year’s roster has only two West Virginia players. Everyone else is scattered across the country from Pittsburgh to New York to Vermont to Dallas to California.
“It would take about $25 million to become a varsity sport,” Sturges said.
It’s a long shot, but entirely possible, as he referred to two recent examples of university hockey clubs transitioning to the NCAA (WVU hockey competes in the American Collegiate Hockey Association). In 2012, Penn State became a Big Ten hockey team after alumnus and Buffalo Sabres owner Terrence Pegula donated $102 million for the construction of an ice arena suitable for NCAA status.
The Arizona State hockey team is another that benefited from private donations, as $32 million helped propel them to the NCAA in 2015.
“If someone steps up with the money, it could happen,” Sturges said. “It requires money, facilities and equipment. That’s the stuff I want for them. That’s what I got to experience.”
Sturges played as a defenseman at Michigan State University, an NCAA-sanctioned Big Ten team.
At 27, he doesn’t appear much older than the players he coaches. He, too, is a student at WVU, and will soon wrap up his doctoral studies in sport and exercise psychology at the College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences. He also teaches classes of undergrads and works as an intern in addictions counseling and recovery services.
“I’m wearing at least four or five hats and doing research, if you’re counting,” Sturges said.
Sturges took over as head coach in November 2015 after a 7-7 start the previous year.
Another stark difference between varsity and club sports is that with hockey, the players wield the wand of power.
Personnel changes can take place at the discretion of the team president, a player who’s elected to serve in that role every season.
“We have a GM, coach, assistant coach and other staff,” Collard said. “Technically, they work for the president of the team.
“If I feel like A.J. Sturges is not right for this team, I can have him fired tomorrow.”
Don’t worry, coach.
“If we didn’t have A.J., we’d be in a lot of trouble,” Collard said.
“This position gives you the opportunity to learn how to operate and manage, and it’s great for resumes. For someone like me who’s just trying to be a dentist, it’s a lot of responsibility.”
COACH A.J. STURGES TALKS STRATEGY WITH HIS TEAM IN THE LOCKER ROOM.
Knocked out teeth, childhood memories of a logo and an answered email inquiry are some of the things that lined Collard’s journey from Canada to Morgantown.
A native of Toronto, Ontario, Collard was raised on hockey (Who in Canada isn’t?). His father, Glen, had a stint in the NHL for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1970s.
After high school, Collard didn’t have his goals centered yet on a college education. He did what many other Canadian hockey players do and aspired to play junior hockey. In Canada, amateur junior hockey is generally for players between 16 and 21. The highest level there is called “major junior.”
But not many young Canadian hockey players consider the college route, said Collard, who opened up to that possibility after getting his teeth knocked out in a junior league game. “Going through the process of getting new teeth, I was like, ‘Wow. I could do this,’” he said. “After high school, I just wanted to play hockey. Now I was at a point where I decided I wanted to become a dentist.”
Collard visited Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Slippery Rock University and a few other American campuses with respected hockey programs.
Then Collard remembered this one place off exit 155 of Interstate 79. As a boy, Collard would go on family road trips from Canada to Florida and one regular stop would be at the Star City exit. Images of the Flying WV – the official WVU logo – that he’d see off that exit burned into his memory. He decided to email Paul Taibi, then-coach of the WVU hockey team. Collard got a swift reply to come on down and try out.
“After an hour touring this place, I knew this is where I was going to end up,” Collard said. “There was a level of school pride and community here that I never felt touring the other schools or any in Canada.”
Collard is currently a senior studying exercise physiology in the School of Medicine and will graduate in May. He’s waiting to hear if he’s been accepted into the WVU School of Dentistry.
RIGHT: TYLER COLLARD (PHOTO BY WVU HOCKEY)
Speed. Injuries. Community.
While Collard hasn’t lost any more teeth during his WVU hockey career, he’s endured his share of bumps, bruises and broken bones.
He sat out a few games of the 2017-18 season after breaking his forearm trying to block a slapshot. In his freshman year, he played the final eight games on a broken leg – Collard cast the injury as a high ankle sprain at the time and refused to go to the doctor. After the end of the season, he went to the student health clinic and was told he’d broken his fibula in four places. He was on crutches for four months.
On the positive note, the high-impact brand of gameplay that leads to such injuries contributes to the rising popularity of hockey around the country. In four years, Collard has witnessed a spike in WVU hockey’s fan following. He believes the hard-hitting sport is gaining fans who formerly relied on football for their smash-mouth preference of athletic performance.
“In Toronto, you have hockey on top of hockey,” Collard said. “Here, it’s emerging as a sort of cult following. You might go to your first WVU hockey game and say, ‘How awesome. How fast.’ You’ll probably see a fight in some fashion. My team is generally pretty chippy. The things – the speed and the violence – that they look for in football games, they see in hockey. That’s how we grow.
“When you watch a football game, you have downs. One person gets tackled and it’s a minute ‘til the next play. In hockey, you watch someone get hit, and then that guy gets hit, and then that guy gets hit. It’s 60 minutes of action.”
Sturges believes the team’s connections throughout the state help bolster its image.
There are only three hockey rinks in West Virginia – Morgantown, Charleston and Wheeling – so the WVU team tries to play games in those other two arenas every year.
“What’s really interesting is that, in terms of perception, people don’t realize that we’re not a varsity sport,” Sturges said. “The hockey team has a great reputation throughout the state. We’ve got a good partnership with the communities in Charleston and Wheeling.”
Its popularity has expanded enough that, starting this 2017-18 season, WVU hockey has added a Division II team. Think of it as a junior varsity team.
In recent years, the team has had 30 to 33 men on the roster but could only dress 21 for a game.
“You’ve got almost a third of them just sitting there watching the games and not playing,” Collard said. “Starting a JV team gets everyone on the ice.” Having a Division II team also comes in handy if the main roster is plagued by injuries. “We recruited 30 freshmen this year to fill that Division II team,” Collard said. “Now we have two teams with a healthy roster. Nobody’s sitting.”
WVU PLAYERS PREPARE TO BATTLE THE PITTSBURGH PANTHERS IN A GAME IN EARLY 2017.
Stone Cold Lessons
Maybe it’s better this way.
Maybe there’s something about 10 p.m. practices. Or renting vans to drive to games five hours away.
Maybe there’s something beneficial to having a coach who’s forced to juggle life like his student-athletes.
Maybe there’s something about having the inmates run the asylum.
“This being a club sport is a reason why I’m getting into dental school,” Collard said. “Kids are spending 20-30 hours a week with the team on top of studying and working jobs. It’s a lot of time committing to a team you’re not getting paid to go to school for.
“I’m more equipped to handle the real world than the person who showed up here four years ago.”
The relationships born will remain just as crucial.
RYAN WICKISER, OF NEW ALBANY, OHIO, PROTECTS THE GOAL WHILE BRENNEN ADAMS, OF BETHEL PARK, MD., PLAYS DEFENSE AGAINST PITTSBURGH.
“My roommate Kyle [Dolly] is going to be my best friend for the rest of my life,” Collard said. “Everyone loves each other when we’re winning, but when we’re losing, we call each other out. I’d like to see our team more cohesive when we’re not winning but in the end, we love each other. We’ll be crying at the end of the season when it’s over.” Somewhere in Toronto, there’s a WVU flag flying over a house – “It probably makes absolutely no sense to other people up there.” That’s where Collard’s parents live.
They’ve come down for a few games, and always catch the games livestreaming on the WVU hockey web page. Wherever Collard winds up in the future, he’ll be doing the same – popping in for an occasional game and following along online.
“Now WVU is what I live for,” said Collard, who then rolled up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo of a WVU hockey logo. “The team will mean the world to me for the rest of my life. I’m going to be someone who donates, comes back and sees games. It’s unbelievable to think that just a logo, a memory from a road trip, ends up meaning so much.
“The ability for this program to latch onto somebody and bring them in and make them love this University so much is probably the greatest thing about it.”
LEFT: PLAYERS WARM UP OUTSIDE THE MORGANTOWN ICE ARENA; RIGHT: GOALIE RYAN WICKISER REFLECTS IN THE LOCKER ROOM.