Even back in 2001, Ryan Donovan could see the writing on the wall.
A high school hockey player from the Milwaukee, Wis., area, Donovan wanted to attend a major university and still have the opportunity to play competitive hockey.
The solution was a no-brainer. Donovan packed his bags for the University of Minnesota. As for his hockey fix, Donovan joined Minnesota’s club hockey team. It was a decision that changed his life.
Donovan has gone from player to coach and is now Western Collegiate Club Hockey Association commissioner, a volunteer position.
Donovan remembers what the “club” option did for him, and his mission is to help provide the same opportunities for the hundreds who share the same passion for hockey.
“A lot of people want to go to a big school, schools that might already have a D-I program,” Donovan said. “They like the idea of sharing in that big school college life, and with club hockey, it gives people the chance to still play hockey at a competitive level.
“Even if they can’t play at a D-I level, players have the opportunity to continue to play the game at a high level while enjoying the college experience.”
The word competitive is accurate. Over the last several years, club hockey has exploded across the nation. Club teams are grouped by divisions (Division I, Division II, Division III), are ranked nationally and governed by the American Collegiate Hockey Association. They even have a national tournament at the end of the season.
At the Division II level, which includes teams in the WCCHA (Minnesota, St. Cloud State, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota State, Northern Michigan, Wisconsin, St. Thomas) there are approximately 200 teams across the nation.
When Donovan started playing club hockey, there were only two Division II teams in the state (the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State). In 2011 that number has grown to seven. There are six more Division II programs in Wisconsin.
“Some of those programs are great, great programs,” Donovan said. “Basically, most big schools who don’t have a D-I program have a D-I club program. Those D-I programs have a lot of support and money behind them. Arizona and Oklahoma for example have blue line clubs. Money is a big player.
“Also, you take into account fan base, reporting information, etc. There are certain criteria you have to fill if you want to have a D-I club program, but it basically all boils down to money. When I played, we paid for everything. With most club teams, the players and the organization finance the season. It’s gets to be pretty expensive when you take into account traveling, meals, rink time and all the other stuff that goes along with it.”
In other words, club hockey has changed. Those changes are apparent in the rapidly improving skill level.
Former Mound-Westonka forward Riley Hansom, a three-year regular in the White Hawks’ lineup, now straps on his skates as member of the Minnesota State club hockey team. To say he was surprised with the level of competition when he first arrived would be an understatement.
“It’s definitely a step up from high school,” Hanson said. “Players are bigger, they shoot harder. The competition is pretty good, definitely. We have tryouts, practice two times a week and play Friday-Saturday series just like you would if you were playing for the D-I program. I was pretty surprised; it’s been a little bit of an adjustment.”
Charlie Hales, another former White Hawk, is playing for the University of Kentucky club hockey team. Hales and his Wildcats teammates will take road trips to Bowling Green, Miami (Ohio) and the University of Illinois this season. Their schedule also includes the Ohio State club team.
“I was really surprised to come to Kentucky and find a team as good as the team I’m on. The speed is definitely a little quicker than high school,” Hales said. “I was not expecting a club hockey team to be this competitive or serious, but I am having fun playing puck.”
“There is a history of a lot of players playing club hockey who have been very good,” Donovan said. “Some guys were playing D-I and got hurt or played major junior hockey and for whatever reason didn’t want to continue. I’d say now everyone who plays for a club hockey team was a good first or second liner for their high school hockey team. I think that’s the biggest surprise for people when they see just how competitive these leagues are.
“When I was coaching for the University of Wisconsin club hockey team, we had all-state players playing for us. We had players who were on the road to D-I and for a variety of reasons didn’t stay with it.
“I think the benefit of club hockey is you get to do all of the fun things college hockey brings without the major commitment. You don’t give up your social life, you don’t have to dedicate four hours a day training and practicing like a typical D-I program. We play games a high level, no question, but the emphasis is on enjoying the game.”
This, as Donovan puts it, ultimately defines the club hockey experience. As for the future, Donovan sees the possibility of club hockey programs serving as a junior varsity program for some schools, and in special cases, even serving as an “informal feeder program.”
Donovan points to Michigan State as an example. During the school’s annual green and white game, the Division I program uses some of their club program’s players to fill out the roster spots. While he’s trying not to let his imagination get carried away, it does bring up an interesting discussion.
“I do think it could be an option for some programs in the future,” Donovan said. “You don’t lose much in competition and just having that awareness, that option, could be a benefit to some programs. I look at it as an untapped resource. As the word continues to get out more about club hockey and what it can offer, I think the popularity and level of competition is going to continue to grow even more.”
Given the growth since 2001, the theory could one day soon become reality.