The University of Arizona's club hockey team celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Team founder and coach Leo Golembiewski also reached a milestone in 2009 — his 600th victory.
With the Icecats (8-11-2) nearing the end of the season, the former Illinois high school coach recently discussed how the Icecats came to be, what he's most proud of and how he's connected some famous names to the club over the years.
Q: What were your goals when you started this program 30 years ago?
A: We started laying the groundwork for the Icecats in 1977. I was a high school hockey coach in Illinois (Lyons Township High in La Grange, Ill.) and had some great high school hockey players who had no place to go play in college. NCAA Division I was mostly Canadian players, and collegiate club hockey didn't exist at all. I wanted to build a college hockey program for American kids and give back to them.
I came out to Tucson, and our first practice was on Nov. 1, 1979. We practiced at Iceland Bowl and Ice Arena on Speedway and it was only 117 feet by 70 feet which is basically half of a rink. There was no Plexiglas and there were cinder-block walls on three sides.
The first year we played eight games, didn't have any home games and we didn't even think about year two or three. There was no grand thoughts of going NCAA Division I. I mean, we didn't even have a facility.
Since then, yeah, the goal has been to become NCAA Division I but finances and Title IX have been the biggest reasons we haven't been able to do that.
Q: Your overall record stands at 602-184-23, what's given you the most satisfaction over your career?
A: The kids who graduate. We've provided a chance for these players to continue to play hockey at a pretty high level. That's the main thing. We built a program that wasn't based on winning a game. I never got into coaching hockey to win games; I got in to teach kids about this great game, and the winning came from trying to do it right.
Q: How have you connected with so many celebrities and had them become honorary captains?
A: Hockey helped. Hockey is a very bonding sport. I mean, I love Don Rickles — nobody has done more for the term "hockey puck." So when I met him there was an instant connection. John McCain, Oliver North, Bobby Hull, Bill O'Reilly — they're all hockey people. I mean it's just evolved from people I've met.
But there are others who I've met who haven't been honorary captains. Kurt Russell is a good buddy. Harry Caray Jr. I golfed with Garth Brooks at Forty Niner Country Club. They're all people I've gotten to know.
Q: What's been the biggest change you've seen in players since you first started coaching?
A: Probably commitment. You used to have a goal of "I'm going to be a good student and a good hockey player and I'm going to go focus on those two areas." So you didn't get bogged down in a lot of the other social things that round out your college experience. Now there are so many outside influences, and you can't have it all.
Players have changed and the way I coach has changed. I'm not tyrannical because it doesn't fly anymore. The four-letter word I try to teach players is "care." You have to care about yourself and about your team. The best Icecats, those who got the most out of the organization, are the ones who understood this — the sacrifice, the discipline and responsibility.
Q: What do you think your legacy will be in Tucson?
A: I'm a teacher, an educator who has done the best he could, worked hard and have been very blessed.
Q: At age 59, how much longer do you want to keep coaching and running this organization?
A: I have no idea. Will I want to coach into my 70s or another five or 10 years? I don't know. Did I ever think about winning 600 games? No. I'll just know when it's time to leave.