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College Hockey Opportunities Continue to Grow as CHF Begins Play

By Scott Lowe - MyHockeyRankings.com

Not too long ago, if a young hockey player dreamed of playing in college, he either had to be one of the fortunate minority to possess the talent and perseverance to land a spot on one of the 135 or so NCAA Division I and III teams or settle for attending a school that had a club program.

Back then, for many players who hoped to make hockey an integral part of their college experience before realizing that advancing to the NCAA level likely would involve two or three years of junior hockey after high school and 18U, the non-varsity club hockey experience just wasn’t what they were seeking.  

While there have always been strong non-varsity programs that operated at close to a varsity level, they were very much in the minority, so the odds of a player finding that type of program at a school he really wanted to attend were pretty slim. At one time, collegiate club hockey was viewed by many as more of a social activity that included paying club dues, occasional practices and a few late-night games in front of some rowdy friends.

The overall experience provided by the top club programs might have satisfied the thirst of serious a young hockey player, but for the more intense programs it was difficult to find like-minded teams and competitive games without traveling. More travel usually meant more fees, and any of us who attended college are well aware that disposable income for students is not always readily available.

Boy have times changed.

The American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA), the largest governing body for collegiate non-varsity hockey and a USA Hockey affiliate, has exploded in the past decade and now features hundreds of teams playing at the Division I, II and III levels. As of July, the ACHA offered about 70 different options at the D1 level, nearly 200 D2 options and more than 120 D3 opportunities. The ACHA also has more than 80 women’s teams competing at the Division I and II levels.

What’s interesting about the ACHA divisional alignment is that while you will see the types of larger state schools you might expect such as Arizona State, Iowa State, Syracuse, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Oklahoma and Arkansas listed among the registered Division I programs, you also will find that smaller institutions such as Liberty, Lindenwood, Minot State and Adrian have become national powers at the D1 level. 

Likewise, you will find Power Five schools like Minnesota, Michigan, Maryland, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina Texas A&M, Texas and Wisconsin listed among the Division II programs. And many larger schools field teams at multiple levels of ACHA play. Kansas, Nebraska, Purdue and Notre Dame have D3 programs.

“The main difference between D1 and D3 programs are the budgets,” said Farmingdale State College (N.Y.) Director of Hockey Operations and General Manager Jon LaRochester, the team’s former head coach who built that program into an annual ACHA Division III national contender. “We have the skill and talent to compete with many of those teams, but when it comes to having money to spend on our players and the program, there can be quite a substantial difference.”

The great news about non-varsity college hockey is that there truly is something for everybody. If you want a varsity-style experience playing for a program that practices three or four days a week, plays in front of big crowds at nice rinks, offers an extensive schedule with travel and competes for a spot in the ACHA national tournament every year, it’s there for you. If hockey isn’t as much of a priority but you love to play, there are teams that offer a one or two practices per week and about 15 games. And there many programs offering an experience that is somewhere in between.

In addition, starting with the 2019-20 season, there is a new non-varsity hockey opportunity for players who are ready to attend college and continue playing hockey.

LaRochester, former ACHA Division III Vice President and longtime University at Albany head coach Scott Solomon and several other successful club hockey coaches and administrators broke away from the ACHA to form the Collegiate Hockey Federation (CHF) with the mission “to provide and enable for the best club hockey experience for collegiate student-athletes in the United States.”

LaRochester said 82 former ACHA Division II and III programs have jumped on board for this season and thinks that number could double by next year. Some of those programs are maintaining dual membership for now since many programs had already scheduled most of their games for this season when the official formation of the league was announced. There also are plans for a women’s league in the near future.

The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) is the league’s sanctioning body, providing the insurance necessary for the competing teams, and for its initial year of play, the CHF will consist of the Delaware Valley Collegiate Hockey Association (DVCHC), the Empire Conference and the Upper New York Collegiate Hockey League (UNYCHL).

These conferences will make up the Atlantic, East and North regions, respectively and there also is a group of independents. Teams will be grouped within their conferences and regions as national-bound and non-national-bound programs, with 32 teams advancing to a national championship tournament in the Philadelphia area next March. 

For the first season, the league will have representatives as far north as Massachusetts, as far west as Buffalo and as far south as the Virginia Beach area. The league has partnered with MyHockey Rankings and will use MHR algorithm-based rankings in combination with conference tournament results to determine which teams advance to the national tournament. GameSheet Inc. also is a partner, and its software will be used to track official league statistics and standings.

LaRochester said that the ACHA has done a tremendous job in growing and improving the sport of hockey at the non-varsity, collegiate level, but as the membership surpassed 500 teams it became impossible for the organization to meet the needs of all the programs at the various levels.

“They do a great job for the Division I programs and administering the sport at that level,” he said. “And they run a phenomenal national tournament, but some of the decisions being made and things that were being implemented really weren’t in the best interest of many of the D2 and D3 members. Some of the documents and bi-laws created when the league was formed in 1991, when there nowhere near 500 teams, were still in effect.”

Expenses such as the yearly team dues and the travel and lodging costs required to get to Texas for ACHA Nationals made it impossible for many programs to do much more than compete locally. Numerous programs were declining the opportunity to participate in the national tournament, which was impacting the overall student-athlete experience for their players. 

Increasing budgets for club-level sports simply is not an option at many colleges and universities, and coaches and program administrators prefer not to ask their players to pay more to play or raise more money than they already do. There were other political concerns for a number the Division II and III programs, which is not surprising for an organization that has exploded from a handful of teams 25 years ago to nearly 500 as of last year.

Some of those schools determined it was in their best interest to move on and create an organization that was more suited to their needs, their budgets and the experience they wanted to create for their student-athletes. Thus, the CHF was born.

“There has been a shift in the ACHA with all the growth, and a lot of the decisions being made were top-down decisions that were impacting teams at our level,” LaRochester said. “When the coaches and heads of some of the conferences in the Northeast got together to discuss what we could do to change the situation, we began talking about the possibility of doing our own thing.”

For programs at the ACHA Division I level, as well as some of the better-funded D2 teams, the growth and improved level of play in the ACHA over the past 25 years provides them with an opportunity to provide the type of college hockey experience many players desire.

Mike Urgo is the head coach of Stevenson University’s ACHA Division II program, which is a fully subsidized program that charges its players minimal fees to play. Stevenson, located in Maryland about a 20-minute drive from downtown Baltimore, also has a relatively new NCAA Division III team, so there has been some trickle down from that program to Urgo’s. But he also has been able to recruit from all over the Northeast by selling the affordable fees, two-to-three practices a week and a 25- to 30-game schedule that includes a good amount of travel.

This year his team goes to Vermont, Pennsylvania, Virginia and New Jersey, and as many club teams at the D2 and D3 levels have to fundraise for everything from uniforms to travel and ice expenses, Urgo’s team raised money for a Thanksgiving trip to Europe this year.

So, just like non-varsity hockey provides opportunities for student-athletes in search of a variety of experiences, now with the ACHA and CHF, the needs of all types of club hockey programs can be met.

“The ACHA has been great for us,” Urgo said. “We have no plans of leaving.”

The road to playing NCAA hockey is a long, difficult, stressful and expensive one – even for players who end up playing in the tuition-free junior leagues. Many players realize as their youth and high school careers are winding down that they aren’t interested in making the continued commitment to the game necessary to compete at the junior and NCAA levels, but they still want to keep playing in college.

Some families can’t afford the extra $25,000 or more it might cost to play two years at the Tier 3 junior level in hopes of getting an NCAA Division III opportunity. Other players try juniors for a year and determine that either their NCAA dreams are not going to be fulfilled or just don’t want to go through the grind for another season. And still others just want to go to college on time like most of their high school classmates.

“The kid who is playing for a decent junior team and is riding the bench holding the clipboard, that’s the kid I want,” LaRochester said. “He gets into a few games here and there at that level then comes here and can be an All-American for us. Every once in a while we will steal a kid who goes off to play juniors at a high level and after a year has just had enough. If you look at youth hockey in Michigan, there are a lot of kids playing on really good Tier 1 hockey teams, but not so many Division III NCAA programs. A lot of those kids are going to end up playing non-varsity hockey, and that just makes the experience and level of play that much higher.”

The incredible growth of non-varsity college hockey and various types of collegiate hockey opportunities provided now by organizations such as the ACHA and CHF allow more young players than ever to continue playing beyond high school and club hockey into college. And those opportunities cater to almost any level of player and allow each person to find the combination of hockey and academics he wants.

“As a lifelong educator, when I sit down to talk to a recruit, the first thing I want to figure out is what does hockey mean to him,” LaRochester said. “Whether I’m talking to a high school senior, a 19-year-old who was an 18U player or a kid who just finished his first year of juniors, I want to know if the player wants hockey to be a priority or just something to enhance the college experience. If he’s talking to me, it’s probably because he’s not going to play in the NHL, so I want to help him make a decision based on that and what he’s interested in studying and for a career. If he’s not a fit here, I can help point him in the right direction. That’s where that network of 500 schools with hockey is such a great resource.”

LaRochester was a high school coach – and still is a high school principal – when he took over the Farmingdale program in 2007. Some of his former players asked if he would consider coaching there, and he wasn’t sure what to expect, so LaRochester went to see a game and was “shocked” at the high level of play he saw then. And the overall non-varsity collegiate hockey experience only seems to be getting bigger and better with each passing year.

“From when I first got involved, it has changed significantly in terms of the attention to detail involved,” LaRochester said. “And social media has changed the game along with the national rankings, the national tournaments and national sponsorships. The overall experience has changed tremendously, but just like when I first went to see a game all those years ago, when I bring a recruit to a game here, if I just had a dollar for every time someone said, ‘Holy cow, I had no idea this looked like this.’  With everything we have going on now, people want to be a part of this when they see how good it is.”

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