Arizona hockey: Remade Cats shoot for nationals

2011-12-15T00:00:00Z 2014-07-08T15:42:20Z Arizona hockey: Remade Cats shoot for nationalsPatrick Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
December 15, 2011 12:00 am  • 

We Tucsonans don't just have favorite Mexican restaurants.

We have favorite Mexican spots, subdivided by occasion, food, mood and company. There are fancy places and dives, street food and Sonoran dogs. Places where you can drink. Places where you eat standing up.

Friday night, my wife and I walked into our favorite Mexican food place, Quick-Dinner-But-Not-Fancy-Dress Subdivision, across the street from Tucson Convention Center.

El Minuto was as packed as I've ever seen it. Folks dressed in red Arizona Wildcats sweatshirts and scarfs had squeezed into the place, drinking margaritas poured from plastic pitchers.

It was game night.

If I needed a reminder hockey still exists at TCC , dubbed "The Madhouse on Main Street" by its old coach, it hit me between bites of albondigas and chicken flautas a half-hour before faceoff.

Nine games into the season, the UA campus recreation department's makeover of the club hockey program is going well.

The team is staked to a $250,000 budget and has defeated three top-10 teams.

Friday night it drew 3,550 fans to see the Sun Devils; Saturday night's rematch brought in 3,879.

The Arizona Wildcats made $10,000 more off ASU weekend gate receipts than the former Icecats did last spring against the Sun Devils, said hockey operations director Cody Nicholls.

The team has averaged 1,914 fans - about what the UA women's basketball team drew last year.

"I've been surprised with the number of people that support Wildcats hockey," said first-year coach Sean Hogan. "I've been in a lot of buildings, and our atmosphere really is unmatched."

It's different from the 32 years the Icecats spent under Leo Golembiewski.

Players can wear the block "A" on their chests. The UA bookstore sells jerseys, T-shirts and mini hockey sticks for the first time.

Kitschy music has been replaced by modern stuff. Players are introduced beneath spotlights in a darkened arena.

"We're not coming out to, 'Who Let the Cats Out?' anymore," junior forward Brian Slugocki said.

For the first time, players watch film of opponents and eat a team meal before home games. Opposing stats and scouting reports are posted in the locker room.

"The culture is different," said senior forward Brady Lefferts, who leads the team with 21 goals.

The messy divorce between Golembiewski - who threatened legal action after the campus recreation program and his own players reorganized the club team and took it from his control - has yet to turn nasty.

In April, when I sat outside heated meeting between he and UA officials, I would have bet otherwise.

Slugocki said the team has yet to hear from Golembiewski, who won 634 games and owns the "Icecats" trademark. The UA ran afoul of the trademark once, mistakenly calling the Wildcats by their former name in a publication.

Associate vice president of student affairs Frank Farias - who said he "would be very naïve to think (Golembiewski) would just accept" the April move - called the new club setup "wonderful."

He anticipates the Cats will break even. They have a $250,000 budget, paid for by the UA, but don't plan on spending it all, Nicholls said.

Nicholls, who once served as Wyoming's football graduate assistant under former UA assistant Dana Dimel, said a lot of his job "has been relationship building, and relationship rebuilding."

The team started a youth program, complete with "Adopt-a-Wildcat" programs connecting players to kids.

There's still work to do. While installing a fast-paced offense, Hogan has seen his team go 9-9-1; last year's Icecats went 14-15.

Saturday's 7-2 loss to ASU was the Wildcats' worst loss of the season; two players from each team were ejected. Arizona has lost its last 20 Cactus Cup games to ASU.

Still, Hogan thinks he can return the team - albeit with a new name - to the postseason for the second time in nine years. The Wildcats are ranked No. 16 in one American College Hockey Association computer poll, No. 17 in another, and have three weeks off before facing San Diego State on Jan. 6 at TCC.

Slugocki, a captain who helped choose the new coach, said "there's not much in the program that hasn't been improved" under Hogan.

"None of us have been to the national tournament," Slugocki said. "We want to get there."

When they do, I know a place here to celebrate. They have great flautas.

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