Playing shorthanded: How club hockey works

The Illini hockey team may not be in the league they want to play in, but there’s no doubt they’re one of the top teams in the one they’re stuck in.

The 2013-14 season will be the first year the NCAA will include a Big Ten college hockey conference, but Illinois never got the invite.

Instead, Illinois will head into another season with the American Collegiate Hockey Association, a league comprised of 59 nonvarsity, collegiate hockey club teams.

The ACHA includes seven conferences and six independent schools within its league, just as the NCAA operates as an umbrella with localized conferences within it.

Illinois is a member of the Central States Collegiate Hockey League, a conference featuring six teams from the Midwest: Lindenwood, Indiana, Iowa State, Ohio, Robert Morris and Illinois.

Illinois has been a part of the CSCHL conference since the 1975-76 season, making this year its 38th season with the league, the longest tenure of any of the conference’s six teams.

The Illini are six-time CSCHL tournament champions and have won the regular season conference title three times, with the third coming last season. Illinois is also the only team to record an undefeated season in ACHA history (38-0) in the 2007-08 season.

Head coach Nick Fabbrini said one of the team’s goals this season is to not only defend the CSCHL conference championship, but also to win the ACHA National Title, which the Illini have won twice in the past decade.

“We believe that we belong among the top teams in the ACHA,” Fabbrini said. “We got close last year. It wasn’t enough, but we were right there.”

But as one of 59 Division-I club hockey teams, the Illinois hockey team doesn’t get the luxury of focusing all of its efforts on the ice.

Playing as a club means the team receives no financial aid from the University, forcing the program’s financial responsibilities on the Illini players and coaches, themselves.

Senior defenseman Mike Evans said the Illini players are responsible for generating awareness throughout the community for Illini home games, where they make their primary source of funding through ticket sales, while the remaining bills get passed down to the team’s players and coaches.

Evans said the players make promotional rounds to most businesses in the Champaign-Urbana area, even visiting fraternities and sororities in order to put up posters and schedule cards in hopes of bringing in larger crowds each weekend.

“We are the biggest marketing tool that we have,” Evans said. “It’s difficult, but it’s great when you see that payout with a lot of people coming out to the games.”

The team was able to raise around $15,000 through a fundraiser earlier this year, earning donations from Illini hockey alumni from 2005-2011 teams.

Freshman defenseman Cody von Rueden isn’t used to helping fund a team himself, after playing six seasons in semiprofessional junior level leagues where he said the teams made money for their host cities instead of the team itself worrying about footing the bills.

“There’s a lot more work than just on the ice,” von Rueden said after just a few weeks as an Illini. “We’re always going around town selling ads and putting up posters.”

But the Illini hope the years of shaking hands and putting up posters can come to an end sometime in the near future with a jump to the NCAA, where they can receive University funding.

Penn State was the last Big Ten team to make the jump from the ACHA to the NCAA in 2010, but it was a move only made possible through a $102 million donation from Buffalo Sabres owner Terrence Pegula.

While the Illini don’t have a donor with a personal net worth of $3 billion to help kick-start a Division-I hockey program like Penn State, Fabbrini said the Illini have a devoted fan base and a talented group of in-state players that can succeed at the D-I level.

“Illinois is a hockey state and there are a lot of great youth hockey players here that have to leave the state in order to play Division I hockey elsewhere,” Fabbrini said. “The Big Ten Conference is going to be great for college hockey, and hopefully at some point the University takes a look at getting involved.”

Evans believes Illinois’ chance to make the jump to the NCAA in the next few years is promising but is fully aware the players will need a little help to get there.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next five years it happened, and I hope it does because it would be great for the school and for Chicago hockey,” Evans said. “The thing is, there needs to be a large donation to build a new rink and to fund the program.”

While playing in the ACHA brings about a heavy load of responsibilities off the ice, Fabbrini said the team’s performance on the ice is what will make the biggest financial difference when it comes to ticket sales.

“We’re really trying to do anything we can to raise money, but a lot of that comes down to the way we play,” Fabbrini said. “We need to play well and get people coming back every game.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @Neumannthehuman.