The American Collegiate Hockey Association might not boast the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s high profile, but it boasts more college hockey players and is rapidly growing.
Since forming in 1991, the ACHA has ballooned to around 460 teams, split into three divisions of men’s hockey and two women’s divisions.
While the ACHA has members all across the U.S., the organization has particularly thrived in the newer hockey markets such as the Southwest and places like Florida and Tennessee, where high-level players don’t have as many opportunities to play NCAA hockey after high school.
“With the growth of hockey in the U.S., especially in the southern states, college hockey, from an NCAA perspective, didn’t really keep up,” said ACHA Executive Director Chris Wilk. “As there’s more kids participating at the youth level, obviously there’s that many more kids that would like to continue playing when they go to college, and we’ve kind of filled that void.
“There’s not many [NCAA] Division III schools. If you look at the number of kids playing baseball, football, soccer, any of those other sports, there’s a lot of NCAA Division III schools to fill that desire to play, and there’s not with hockey.”
Going the ACHA route can be a good option for that second tier of talent that can’t crack NCAA Division I lineups.
“We are across the country, in every state except Hawaii, and we’ve probably got over 11,000 players playing in any one year,” declared ACHA President Marshall Stevenson. “It’s good for the kids because it gives them the opportunity to play. If they were able to play at Boston College or BU or Notre Dame, they’d be playing there. But if they aren’t, there’s still some really good kids out there. So we fill a gap.”
While NCAA Division I schools are allotted a certain number of scholarships for ice hockey, free rides are not allowed at Division III schools (there is no Division II for hockey), and those smaller schools are usually the ones the ACHA competes with for players.
While ACHA schools are not obligated to adhere to Title IX, in which schools must provide equal opportunity to men’s and women’s sports, there are multiple factors that leave its programs at a disadvantage.
“The main thing is, an NCAA sport is through the school’s athletic department and paid for by the athletic department,” Wilk explained. “ACHA teams are mostly through another division of the school, mostly recreational services, and most of the funding from ACHA teams comes from the team itself, i.e., the players. That’s the main difference.”
A wide range of schools participate in the ACHA, from huge universities such as UCLA and the University of Oklahoma to small schools like Lindenwood University of St. Charles, Mo., or Adrian College from southern Michigan, both past national champions in hockey.
Last season, Minot State of North Dakota won the ACHA men’s Division I championship while the University of Minnesota took top honors on the women’s side. Michigan State won men’s Division II while West Chester University of Pennsylvania won the women’s tournament, and Adrian won men’s Division III.
Some schools actually ice teams in both the NCAA and the ACHA, and while there are rules dictating that NCAA players cannot play in the ACHA in the same season, there can still be disparities between different ACHA schools based on the resources their teams have access to.
One area in which more money in the program translates to better performance is in coaching. Most ACHA schools cannot afford a full-time, professional coach.
“The structure varies greatly,” Wilk said. “For men’s Division I and women’s Division I, most of the coaches receive a part-time stipend. There are a few programs that are fully funded, where the school’s paying for all the expenses for the team, the players don’t pay anything, and the coach is a full-time position. That’s probably less than five percent of the teams. And then it goes all the way down to the volunteer coach that receives no pay, and that’s probably the majority.”
Even with limited hockey staffs in place, recruiting players can be a serious business.
“It is pretty competitive,” Wilk said. “There is a lot of recruiting that goes on at all the levels, but again, it varies.
“Men’s Division I is very competitive. There’s a lot of recruiting going on. In order to be in the top half, you really have to recruit. And then as you go down to men’s Division II, men’s Division III, the structure changes, the recruiting is probably a little bit less.”
One association that has helped the ACHA raise its profile considerably is USA Hockey. The ACHA provides USA Hockey with players for both the men’s and women’s national teams at the World University Games, which were most recently held Dec. 11-21 in Trentino, Italy. The U.S. women won a bronze medal while the men finished fourth.
“We’re affiliated with USA Hockey, so it was a logical conclusion that the players would come from an organization that they have at the college level,” Stevenson said. “We’re getting good financial support at USA Hockey, because it’s an expensive proposition. I think that we put a good show on over there ... but we’d settle for any of the medals, men or women.”
As for a general perception that the ACHA isn’t legitimate college hockey, that reputation has been gradually changing, too.
“It’s always a struggle,” Stevenson admitted. “At the American Hockey Coaches meetings, we’re just called the ‘non-varsity,’ that’s their way of designating us. ‘Club hockey’ has the wrong connotation, certainly to the product that we try to put on the ice, in terms of our organization and the rules and regulations that we follow. So it is a struggle, but it is easier today than it was yesterday and than it was two years ago and 20 years ago. We have good procedures and a policy manual and we stick to it. You stick to the rules and you’re not by the seat of your pants, you’ll get more respect with time.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.