‘When we come together, we’re 100 percent’

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‘When we come together, we’re 100 percent’

Zach Meeker takes a hit in the game against Northern Illinois University on Feb. 8. The Division II team is working to come out of the shadow of the Division I team.

Zach Meeker takes a hit in the game against Northern Illinois University on Feb. 8. The Division II team is working to come out of the shadow of the Division I team.

Mike Atkenson

Zach Meeker takes a hit in the game against Northern Illinois University on Feb. 8. The Division II team is working to come out of the shadow of the Division I team.

Mike Atkenson

Mike Atkenson

Zach Meeker takes a hit in the game against Northern Illinois University on Feb. 8. The Division II team is working to come out of the shadow of the Division I team.

By Jared Farmer, Staff Writer

It’s 9:30 p.m. on a Tuesday. The University of Illinois Ice Arena is still filled with youth hockey players. The Illini hockey team finished practicing hours ago, and by this time, the youth practice is starting to wrap up, too. Parents have already arrived, all of whom are waiting to bring their kids back home and go to sleep at a reasonable hour.

By this time, it’s 9:45 pm. The last kids have now left the ice and begin returning to their parents. A Zamboni can be seen polishing the rink. This late at night, the ice arena is still not closing up shop.

It’s now 10 p.m. Nearly four hours after the Illini finished practice, another Illinois hockey team skates onto the ice. It’s late and this squad’s season is already over. But nonetheless, the Division II Illinois hockey team is ready to practice.

It’s a team of 22 players, a collection of students representing each graduating class alongside some graduates students. They take up the late-night slots at the Big Pond every Tuesday and Thursday, practicing at a time many students are either studying, getting ready for bed or spending the night out.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, the team alternates between the ARC and the Armory for dryland practices.

The team typically plays its games on Fridays and Saturdays like their Division I counterparts. A typical Friday night game could be slotted at 7 p.m., but if the Division I team plays, the Division II team picks up right after the Illini clear the locker rooms. On nights like those, team members don’t see the pillow of their beds until after 1 a.m., only to wake up the next day to get ready for their next game on Saturday, usually held at 2 p.m.

As a member of the Mid-American Collegiate Hockey Association, the team primarily matches up against the other Division II programs in their conference, namely Bradley University, Illinois State University and Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.

When the team travels far, they organize to get a team bus, but for the closer games, they manage to carpool.

The team is coached by Richie Nelson, who stands well over 6 feet tall in his padded gear and ice skates. A Champaign native currently in his second year as the program’s coach, Nelson grew up playing for the youth team the Champaign Chiefs before starting his collegiate career at Eastern Illinois University.

“I tell the guys this on the first day: I don’t care how many games we win this year. All I care about at the end of the year is that this locker becomes a family and I truly think twice now, we’ve come together as a family,” Nelson said. “You have guys from all different majors and backgrounds, but when we come together, we’re 100 percent here. Our season’s been done for almost two weeks, but the guys are down there because they’re family.”

The Division II team is a student-run organization. The team doesn’t charge admission to its games and all of the equipment is paid for by individual team members. Also, the team’s uniforms are entirely theirs to design. For both the players and those who watch, it’s all about coming together to enjoy the game they love.

“I don’t want to say we’re a hidden gem because we do have loyal fans,” Nelson said. “A lot of the friends of our players come out to support us and the team has a really great Greek support system since some of our guys are in fraternities. Even in the late games, it feels like we get a good turnout.”

No matter what goes on outside of the rink —  stress over exams, personal problems or just being tired after a long day — when it’s 10 p.m., everyone comes in to set aside their problems and become the hockey family Nelson has envisioned.

“That gives this team a very important dynamic and an essential part of the game,” Nelson said.

Sporting a relatively new roster, several pieces being unfamiliar with each other is a cause for some growing problems. This past season, the Illini had more than their fair share of youth. Returning players absorbed the leadership roles filled by the vets who came before them and freshmen gained necessary experience — but at the cost of a couple of games.

“In order to become more successful, we’re going to need to become more consistent,” Nelson said. “We’ve got a great team dynamic and bond that’s boosting our chemistry, so I believe we will come along as we progress to the next season.”

As the team finished the season 9-14, the straw the broke the camel’s back for playoff contention came from back-to-back losses in the weekend series against Bradley.

The Illini competed hard in Peoria but fell just short, losing to the Braves 4-6. With the loss, the Illini were eliminated from getting a spot in the playoffs, and the following day at the Big Pond, were beaten again by Bradley, this time 9-3.

“It sucks because when we lost to Bradley in Peoria, that was a must win game for us. We still had our last two games with (Northern Illinois University) left, but losing to Bradley eliminated us from the MACHA playoffs,” Nelson said. “The hardest part, at least from the coaching perspective, is finding out how to keep morale high and keep the team motivated for these last two games. You can just fold over and die or play with some pride and respect. That meant me asking seniors, ‘How do you want to be remembered?’ and for freshmen, ‘How do you want to set the tone?’”

At David S. Palmer Arena, the home of Northern Illinois’ hockey team, the Illini lost 8-2 in their final game of the season. But the night before they successfully defended home on senior night at the Big Pond. The Illini locked up the Huskies offense, allowing two goals while scoring four of their own and leaving the final home game of the season with a win.

“All the motivational talk, I think it worked really well,” Nelson said.

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