Chad Berman has worked hard to create a sense of urgency in his third season as coach of the Arizona Wildcats club hockey team. He believes this squad will be the one to finally turn the corner and bring the Wildcats back to competitive and community relevance.
“I expect us,” he said, “to be taken seriously.”
That kind of on-ice improvement cannot come soon enough, because the off-ice challenges for the team are heading toward critical status. The team recently learned that the Tucson Roadrunners were granted eight weekend dates at TCC Arena originally sought by the UA.
Now, more than one-third of Arizona’s home schedule will be played on Fridays and Saturdays at 2 p.m., with the American Hockey League’s Roadrunners playing later the same night. That is not a typo: The already fan-challenged Wildcats will have to try to attract more than flies for eight afternoon home games.
But just as the financial obstacles mount, Berman seems to be on the cusp of delivering the kind of quality UA squad that once did fill the stands.
“We have something to prove here, and I think this year we will do just that,” he said.
Last year’s Cats went 10-19-1, but that record is misleading because of a very difficult strength-of-schedule. They were selected for the year-end national club tournament and showed that they belonged.
“We have momentum by winning a game at last year’s tournament, for the first time in 13 years. We’ve been starving for success, and we want a lot more food,” Berman added.
A lot of actual food certainly will be needed, because this year’s team is big and beefy. Ten players on the roster weigh in at more than 200 pounds, and 16 of them are over 6 feet tall — a very large team for this level of play.
“And they’re not big lugs, either,” Berman said. “They have skill and can move, and are all competitive. We’ll have the kind of competitive depth here now that we’ve needed.”
Berman has added 14 new players for a total pool of about 32, with the 21 hardest-working picked to dress for each game. Handcuffed by budget, Berman is forced to recruit via phone and the internet, but has accumulated players from across the U.S. — with four Arizonans, and a couple Canadians.
“I want to create competition within our roster each day,” Berman said. “I like that saying ‘I don’t choose your playing time; you do.’”
Expectations of entitlement won’t get you any ice time with this Wildcat hockey coach. Good old hard work? Yes, please.
The Wildcats play in the Western Collegiate Hockey League, one of several circuits in the national club American Collegiate Hockey Association. Perennial ACHA powerhouses Colorado, Central Oklahoma, and Oklahoma should crowd the top of the rankings in the WCHL — and then there is always Arizona State.
ASU returns a new Sun Devils club team to the ACHA in the wake of recently adding a NCAA Division I hockey program. The ASU rivalry has always defined U of A hockey, and Berman feels this team is ready to both compete and reverse the dominance that ASU has had over the Wildcats in recent years.
Thankfully for team management and fans alike, four of the night home games for Arizona at the TCC this season will be against ASU.
“We need to create results — and we are looking forward to playing ASU,” Berman added. “I talk to the boys all the time about what it means to represent the U of A and Tucson, and just how important it is to be at our best against ASU.
“Character matters to me, and so does hard work. We have kids who are self-starters, hard workers, and that will show on the ice.”
This is beautiful music to my Wildcat-loving-ears. For years now UA hockey hasn’t seemed to have the fire in its belly needed to be a champion.
Now it is a main focus for Berman’s Wildcats.
Scheduling at the TCC continues to be a juggling act for UA hockey, and so they’ll open the season Friday at Northern Arizona University — without any practice time in Tucson beforehand. Bus trips to and from Phoenix for practice are an all-too-often norm for the Wildcats, yet another problem that would be fixed with a local public rink.
Berman sees all this adversity as opportunities to build team toughness. And the one thing UA hockey won’t be short of this season is adversity.