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Opportunities Abound

By Jim Smith, USA Hockey, 03/13/19, 12:00PM CDT

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“Not only do they benefit academically but also from a social, spiritual and athletic perspective. They have the opportunity to represent their school and get a great foundation for the rest of their lives.”

If the American Collegiate Hockey Association were limited to a single hashtag to describe its impact on the game, it would be #Opportunity.

Comprised of 531 teams across five divisions, the ACHA is providing an opportunity for more than 10,000 student athletes to play competitive hockey at colleges and universities in the lower 48 states while earning a degree.

Male students currently compete on 60 teams at the Div. I level, 240 teams at Div. II and 158 teams at Div. III. Female student athletes are skating at the Div. I level (23 teams) and Division II level (50 teams).

The degree of skill and engagement are the core differences between the divisions. Regardless, each level is highly competitive, complete with an opportunity to win a National Championship starting March 21 in Frisco, Texas.

Give Me Liberty

Liberty University is proud to be able to claim a team in each division of the ACHA with more than100 athletes balancing an academic and athletic life at the Lynchburg, Va., school.

“We started with one men’s team and as hockey grew, we were able to grow along with it,” said Kirk Handy, vice president and athletic director for club sports at Liberty. “In 2006 we built our own facility on campus and that is really where the multiple levels started.”

The LaHaye Ice Center has not only been a factor in increasing ACHA participation but is a catalyst in building a hockey culture on campus.

“It is a great opportunity for Liberty students to watch great college hockey on campus,” Handy said. “It is a vibrant crowd. We’ve been able to grow the hockey culture in Lynchburg.”

The opportunity to play competitive hockey at the collegiate level while obtaining a degree is not lost on members of the Liberty Flames.

“It’s huge to be able to provide students this opportunity,” Handy said. “Not only do they benefit academically but also from a social, spiritual and athletic perspective. They have the opportunity to represent their school and get a great foundation for the rest of their lives.”

Lessons at Lindenwood

At Lindenwood University, head coach Rick Zombo believes in preparing his players for life after their college playing days are complete.

“Lindenwood built their enrollment base by offering sports teams and providing a viable opportunity for education,” said the former NHL player turned coach. “The influence of having good players means you have driven players and they excel in the classroom. It is vitally important for my hockey program that we run a 3.0 standard. That grade-point average is what it is all about when it comes to graduating on time and having a J-O-B after a B.A. It’s everything.”

The St. Charles, Mo., based school currently hosts a men’s team at the Div. I and II levels and plans on adding an ACHA women’s team to go along with its NCAA Div. I women’s squad.

During a reunion celebration of Lindenwood’s 2009 ACHA Div. I National Championship team earlier this season, a reminder of the significance of the experience of playing college hockey was evident by the number of returning players and an assessment of their current successes.

“We had 17 guys return from across the country and different walks of life. To have 17 return was absolutely amazing,” Zombo boasted.

Grand Experience

Located in one of the hottest hockey markets, both literally and figuratively, Grand Canyon University in Phoenix has created athletic and academic opportunities for students at the ACHA Men’s Div. II and III levels and Women’s Div. I level after only three years of existence.

And next season, the men’s teams will vault to Div. I and II.

“When we started this program, we had a five-year building plan based on what I knew the university could do and how our area attracts players because of our unique climate to play college hockey. We were able to hit that (plan) and continually grow,” said Danny Roy, head coach and director of hockey operations at GCU. “Each year we have continually grown and been more successful in bringing in stronger players.”

A new partnership with the AZ Titans youth program is aiming to get GCU players certified as USA Hockey coaches. GCU student athletes serve as mentors to youth players and provide them with the future goal of having an option to play after high school.

“There are over 500 ACHA schools in the country and a lot of youth hockey players or Arizona high school players don’t understand that,” said Roy, who added that GCU’s club sports program is  the largest club sports department in the country.

“ACHA schools provides a larger student experience. We try to provide a varsity-level experience at GCU, but we only practice three days a week, so our players have plenty of time to get their school work done, enjoy the campus and everything else Arizona has to offer.”

No Golden Flash In the Pan

The continued growth of the ACHA is providing expanded opportunities and such is the case at Kent State University (Ohio). Currently participating in ACHA Div. I action, the Golden Flashes will add a D-III team in the 2019-2020 season.

“We are providing 25-27 new opportunities for students to come to Kent State and play hockey,” said current Div. I coach Jim Underwood. “Universities have done studies correlating the retention and cognitive benefits of sport and education. It’s the high impact experiences that another hockey team can provide these students. It allows them to be their ‘best-self’ while on campus.”

Among the high impact experiences Underwood listed were leadership, healthy lifestyle, time management and real work experiences.

“We are confident in the model that we have and utilizing that model will work; allowing our student-athletes to be successful in the classroom and successful on the ice,” Underwood said.

Regardless of which ACHA member school a student is looking at, the opportunities are endless.

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