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The College Club Hockey Craze

11/10/2016, 4:00pm MST
By Dave Pond

In the spring of 1991, 15 club hockey teams traveled to Skokie, Illinois, in hopes of banding together and legitimizing club hockey nationwide. Out of that meeting, the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) was born.

Today, the ACHA features more than 500 teams playing in three men’s divisions and two women’s divisions. Notably, ACHA skaters take the ice in 49 states (only Hawaii is yet to add a team), shattering the notion that hockey is exclusively a northern, cold-weather sport.

To learn more about club hockey, we talked with Mike Walley, the executive director of the ACHA. Walley, who rose to the rank of Rear Admiral during a storied 30-year naval career, came to the ACHA from the Atlantic Coast Collegiate Hockey League (ACCHL) where, as commissioner, he helped grow the league from six to 13 teams in just two years.

USA Hockey: Tell us a little about the history of club hockey.

Mike Walley: University club hockey began in the early 1980s. When I attended the Naval Academy, it was very loosely organized and collegiate opponents were few and far between. Your average club hockey team would play a 15- to 20-game schedule against a mix of university teams, local community teams, and some adult league teams. 

There were no eligibility requirements, so teams would roster professors, university staff, or local alumni. Organizational structure, national governance and discipline oversight was completely lacking until USA Hockey came along and sanctioned the ACHA. Now that we’re in our 26th year, I’m pleased to say that much has changed to improve the level of competition, player safety and national governance.

USA Hockey: Having established order within the club hockey ranks, what’s the goal of the ACHA?

Walley: We want to give each player the professional, collegiate, full-check hockey experience (in ACHA men’s hockey; body-checking is not allowed in ACHA women’s hockey) and the chance to represent his or her university, all while maintaining a focus on graduation and preparation for future success in their chosen professions. 

The ACHA is not an adult hockey league, but more closely related to the NCAA. There are eligibility requirements for each player, which include minimum academic standards, and players are limited to five years of ACHA competition.

Furthermore, we enforce strict standards of conduct during gameplay. For example, it’s common for a player to receive additional game suspensions for dangerous hits, fighting, intentional contact to the head of an opponent, or penalties with intent to injure. We take every effort to ensure player safety, which is paramount in a high-speed, contact sport. 

USA Hockey: How has the ACHA grown over the last 26 years?

Walley: We have more than 500 teams at 430 universities, and a total of more than 13,000 student-athletes across 49 states and two Canadian provinces. The ACHA has three men’s divisions and two women’s divisions, and each hosts end-of-season national tournaments. And, like the NCAA, ACHA teams are divided into multiple conferences, each with their own championship title. Most importantly, we continue to grow, having added 77 teams over the last two seasons.

USA Hockey: Are there some big ACHA rivalries?

Walley: We have teams that sell out 3,000-seat campus rinks for every game, while other programs have built intense rivalries with other programs.

For instance, UCLA and USC hold an annual Midnight Madness event, which always draws huge crowds. On the east coast, Duke and UNC hold their rivalry game at PNC Arena, home of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes. And the annual Army-Navy game is held at Reading, Pennsylvania’s Santander Arena, a 7,200-seat venue that’s home to the ECHL’s Reading Royals.

Off campus, alumni from many universities are loyal ACHA fans, too, and regularly watch games. Additionally, we’re also on ESPN3, which carries the ACHA Game of the Week.

USA Hockey: From a participation perspective, why has club hockey become so popular?

Walley: With an explosion of youth hockey across North America, our growth was inevitable. There are literally tens of thousands college students who grew up on the ice, playing at various levels.

We want to provide these student-athletes with the opportunity to participate in a national organization of competitive collegiate hockey, and continue in a sport they enjoyed in their youth.

USA Hockey: Although the ACHA allows its players an opportunity to compete, it also serves as a way for them to give back to their universities and communities, right? 

Walley: Absolutely. More than a year ago, student-athletes from UNC-Charlotte challenged me to grow my hair for an organization called Locks of Love, which provides hairpieces to financially disadvantaged children across the U.S. and Canada. Just this week, the team and I donated our hair.

However, these players are not unique in the ACHA with their generous spirit. Hundreds of ACHA student-athletes donate their hair annually to children with cancer. Elon just played Wake Forest in a charity event to benefit flood victims of Hurricane Matthew. 

Annually, ACHA teams donate more than $1 million to charities, including Pink on the Rink, a number of veteran's charities, and programs benefiting disabled and autistic children.

USA Hockey: What would you say to readers thinking about getting involved in ACHA club hockey?

Walley: No matter how skilled they are, I’d encourage every student who loves the sport to continue to lace up his or her skates. If you’re among the 99 percent of ice hockey players in the United States or Canada that isn’t going to participate in major junior or NCAA play, take a look at ACHA teams at the various universities on your short list. 

With more than 500 teams at 430 universities, there will be a team that will challenge your abilities on the ice, while allowing you to wear your university’s logo and colors. For many of us, the memories and friendships created in the ACHA are the strongest of our university life.

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