Blacksburg may certainly be cold enough for hockey, but it is unlikely that anyone would ever call it a “hockey town.”
However, when Virginia Tech’s club ice hockey team travels to compete in the American Collegiate Hockey Association National Tournament for the first time in its history, people will be forced to start thinking of it that way.
“This is a huge accomplishment for these kids,” said Christopher Arnold, director of hockey operations and marketing for the team. “The team has been around since 1984, so to see it finally reach nationals is great.”
For a team that plays its home games in Roanoke, the opportunity to play on a national stage in Fort Myers, Fla. is incredibly important.
“(Going to nationals) will really help us increase exposure of the program,” said Andres Morales, a senior forward. “This should really let us build up the program in terms of what we want to achieve on a national level.”
Coaches say they have already seen positive results from the increased visibility.
“It’s been really crazy the kind of effect it’s already had on us,” said head coach Joey Mullen.
“I just had a sophomore in high school up in New York call me about joining the team someday and that never would’ve happened otherwise.”
Team members attribute this year’s success to a tougher schedule.
“We’ve really continued to strengthen our schedule this year, and although our results haven’t been as strong as last year, we’ve won when it mattered,” Morales said.
The coaching staff agrees that the tough schedule, combined with some strategic adjustments, have served the team well this season.
“The tougher schedule we played this year helped us get used to the higher level of competition,” Mullen said. “We also made some changes on the defensive line, and they’ve really exploded offensively.”
The team is slated to play William Patterson, Utah State and Lindenwood as part of its opening pool of the tournament, and players are optimistic about their chances.
“People aren’t expecting too much from us, so it’s a good opportunity for us to play with a chip on our shoulder as the underdogs,” Morales said. “This is certainly an opportunity for more exposure, but we also view it as a chance to win the whole thing.”
David Standley, one of the co-founders of the team, views even the opportunity to play in the tournament as progress for the club.
“This team only started because a bunch of transplanted New Englanders tried to find a way to keep playing hockey,” Standley said. “The club’s maturation really started a decade ago, and this is a really strong step forward for the club.”
The club’s humble beginnings are part of what makes its recent achievements all the more impressive to original participants like Standley.
“We’ve gone from literally scheduling random colleges to finding a group of coaches who have made this team into a powerhouse, and I think it’s really impressive what they’ve done here,” Standley said.
No matter how it performs in the tournament, team officials believe the team will come away improved.
“Even if we go 0-3, I think we’ll have a competitive three games,” Arnold said. “It’s just great exposure and learning experience for the kids, so if they get there next year, they know what to expect.”