With the Lake Superior State series now complete, and the Huskies taking a well-deserved break until the Great Lakes Invitational Tournament next month, we have some time to take a look at another intercollegiate hockey team that represents Michigan Tech. After all, we are the Tech Hockey Guide, not just Huskies Hockey Guide!
This team is called the Wolfpack, and it’s Tech’s men’s team in the American College Hockey Association, or ACHA—the national organization for club hockey. The ACHA was founded in 1991, and it serves to create standards for non-varsity hockey throughout the US. There are currently more than 200 teams in the ACHA, and there are three men’s divisions and two women’s divisions.
The Wolfpack plays in the Central Region of Division 2. In Division 2, players have to be registered students, pursuing a degree, and returning players must earn a minimum number of credit hours in the previous year while maintaining a 2.00 GPA. There are other player eligibility requirements that are similar to NCAA requirements, such as the “five-year” eligibility period. In addition, players who’ve used four years of NCAA or ACHA Division 1 eligibility can’t play in Division 2.
The goal is simple. The ACHA tries to make the ice level for student-athletes who want to play competitive hockey while attending college, and make sure that like-minded teams have an opportunity to enjoy the game.
At Tech, the Wolfpack is coached by Paul Hurst, and I spoke with Paul by phone about his team and the club itself. Paul, a real estate tax attorney living in the Keweenaw, is now in his seventh year of coaching the Wolfpack, and he gave me a great primer about the world of university-level club hockey. To start, the ACHA is evolving. In Division 2, some programs (such as Grand Valley) are starting to pay coaches. In Division I, many of the teams get substantial financial support from their university. In fact, Penn State and Arizona State used club programs to build a base for the transition to full varsity programs. In the last year of ACHA club competition, ASU was funded as well as some NCAA teams.
No matter what, a hockey program costs a fair amount of money to run. You have to buy ice time for both practice and games, pay for referees, and travel between schools for games. The Wolfpack gets some money from Michigan Tech as a registered student organization, but it isn’t sufficient to even pay for ice time. So, the club members—and that’s what they are, club members—have to pony up between $600 and $700 per year to play.
Paul is not only the coach, but also the club’s advisor. They have officers and manage their own affairs, and have no formal affiliation with the athletic department at Tech. That means they are responsible for setting up schedules, arranging for ice time, and all of the other things necessary to run the team. Because this is a club, anyone can join, the club makes the rules and the officers make the rules work. The Wolfpack plays to win, but with a 25-skater roster plus four goalies, Paul tries to give everyone some ice time. He will shorten the bench at times, though, to give the Pack a shot at a victory.
To get to games, they carpool. And the whole travel issue is one of the challenges that the Wolfpack faces. As we all know, MTU is about two miles past the end of the earth. There are only a handful of other Division 2 club teams that want to drive all the way to Houghton, because they too are on a budget. So they play a lot of road games—and that costs money for the Wolfpack’s members.
Dee Stadium is the Wolfpack’s home. Not only is ice time substantially less expensive at The Dee than the JMac, but getting a few dozen fans at the Dee can actually create some atmosphere for games. The talent on the team is much better than some of you might think. Many of the players were AAA travel players before heading to college, and the better Division 2 teams have enough skill to be competitive with some NCAA Division III teams. The Wolfpack has played against NCAA Junior Varsity squads over the years, and they’ve held their own in those contests. In general, most solid Division 2 squads would be able to play heads up against NA3HL junior teams.
This season has been one of the Wolfpack’s best in the past few years. They are currently 8-1-1 and have been in the top-twenty rankings for the Central Region for the past month. They might be higher, but their strength-of-schedule, affected by travel, has caused them to be ranked below teams with losing records.
They started out the current season with a home-and-home against Northern Michigan.
And, like the Huskies, they split those games, taking the first tilt at The Dee but losing at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. The followed that with a tie and a win at Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Since then, they are on a 6-0 win streak, with sweeps against Wisconsin-Superior, Central Michigan, and St. Cloud State. The Wolfpack won’t return to action until February, though, when they take on a highly-rated (#11 in the Central Region) Wisconsin-Eau Claire team in Eau Claire.
The Wolfpack’s leading scorer this season is Nick Balavich from Lake Orion, Mich. Nick has 8 goals and 11 assists in ten games. Alex Oliver, the club president from Traverse City who also provided information for this column, is fourth with 12 points. Austin Walter and Kyle Archambeau are the Wolfpack’s top two goalies.
One of THG’s staffers, Nathaniel Brose, is a goalie for the Division 1 club hockey team at Villanova in Philadelphia. At Division 1, the level of play is better, and university support is generally higher—although Brose points out that Villanova isn’t nearly as supportive as the other teams in their Eastern Collegiate Hockey Association. So, again, the players support the program financially, and it’s quite expensive. They don’t have the same travel challenges that face the Wolfpack, however, with many opponents within a three-hour radius. Just so you know, Brose, who hails from Fairbanks, has played in 12 of Nova’s 20 games this year, posting a 0.900 save percentage—a great stat at that level.
All these things add up to the sheer pleasure of playing competitive hockey while getting an education. The true spirit of “student-athlete” is at the heart of club hockey, and the Wolfpack represents Tech very well. And, just so you know, there is a women’s club team at Tech, too. They have a great Facebook page and we’ll try and give you a look at the women’s team later in the season.