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College club hockey picking up steam

They're hitting the ice at Utah State, Weber, BYU

While NHL players and owners face off over who can alienate hockey fans the fastest, there will still be hockey played this fall even if the Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils don't take to the ice.

While Utah is not known nationally as a hockey hotbed, college hockey clubs in Utah are among the most popular sports on campuses across the state, despite the fact that none of them are sanctioned by their universities as varsity sports.

Playing as independent members of the American Collegiate Hockey Association, Weber State competes at both the Division I and Division II levels with two different teams. Utah State and the Provo IceCats also field teams in Division II.

The IceCats, while not officially affiliated with BYU, require their team members to be full-time students and observe the school's honor code.

Weber State's Div. I team and Utah State both finished last year with a measure of success at their respective national tournaments. The Wildcats won two games at nationals and lost in double overtime to eventual champion Ohio, before finishing seventh at the tourney.

The Aggies qualified for the Division II tournament in Maryland, winning once and losing twice en route to a 12th-place finish.

While TV ratings for hockey games had fallen to dismally low numbers before the NHL's lockout, hockey games have always been more intense to fans live and in person at the rink. Instate rivalry games also boost attendance.

"It's real raucous," IceCats head coach Matt Beaudry says of the in-state games. "It's fast-paced and appealing to our fans and obviously to theirs as well because they travel to the games."

Not to take away from the rivalry with the IceCats for both schools, the competition between Weber State and Utah State adds a "sibling rivalry" dimension as well. Like brothers forced to share a room, the Aggies had to travel to the Ogden Ice Sheet to practice and play home games before the Eccles Ice Arena was completed near Logan.

"The fans from both schools really get into it," Weber State D-I head coach Rob Larsen said. "They've always been real competitive hockey games. It's a lot of fun. You get those rivalries going where the schools are so close together you can get the fans going to each rink, getting into it. It's probably the game for them that their fans look forward to the most and the same for ours."

Since the Aggies have had a home of their own, they've helped do a little remodeling. In large part due to the popularity of hockey, the George S. Eccles Ice Arena is expanding, adding bleachers to bring capacity to around 2,000 seats, said John Eccles, assistant Aggie coach.

"There's times when we've turned away a couple of hundred people," Eccles said.

Eccles is a distance relative of the arena's namesake, and having been in charge of youth hockey in the valley 20 years ago before there was an indoor arena, he has seen the growth of hockey. Now Eccles is in charge of hockey operations for youth and adult leagues at the center as well as volunteering as an assistant coach.

Volunteer, in fact, describes the participation of everybody in the hockey club, from USU head coach Jerry Crossley and the players down to the students who help the club's operation.

Given the attendance levels at hockey games, fans and players alike would like to see their sport promoted beyond club status to officially sanctioned varsity sport.

Eccles thinks it may happen down the road some time.

"The teams out here are getting stronger," he said.

Larsen is not quite so optimistic, though he thinks Weber could be very successful as a varsity team.

"I don't see it in the near future, with Title IX and all those things," he said. "It's just a real difficult thing to do. I don't really see that happening unless (Weber State) decided to drop their football program or something like that and that's not going to happen."

Meanwhile, the Provo IceCats can't worry about trying to move up to varsity — they'd just like to be recognized by BYU as a club sport. The school had a hockey club years ago and dropped it, Beaudry said, and while there are occasional rumblings about trying to become reaffiliated with the school, he's heard it's a matter of money, resources and maybe other reasons as well.

Still, team members have to be full-time students at BYU, adhere to the school's honor code and otherwise try to fit within the mission of the university.

"We've purposely patterned ourselves (after BYU)," Beaudry said. "It's probably one of the most unique locker rooms in hockey."

His club fills a role for players who come to BYU from all over and happen to like hockey, he said.

BYU's traditional rival, the University of Utah, is noticeable among the state's other schools for its lack of a hockey club. Utah's hockey club is currently disbanded, serving a two-year suspension for rules violations, but will be eligible for reinstatement in the fall of 2005.

A 2 a.m. rollover of a van forbidden by the university to be driven on road trips between midnight and 5 a.m. was the last straw in a series of infractions that led to the punishment of the team.

Utah Valley State College is another school without a hockey club.

While University of Utah sports club coordinator Julian Gomez doesn't know what conditions will have to be met for reinstatement, he said he wants the U. to have a team again.

"We are just hopeful that a nice group of students will step forward to represent the university" when the suspension ends, Gomez said.

Eccles and Larsen are also hopeful Utah will come back.

"We wish the University of Utah was still playing," Eccles said. "That was pretty nice to have four teams so close to each other, in-state rivals. It was a lot of fun."

The University of Utah was to be a key part of forming an ACHA league called Hockey West, Larsen said, a league he's still pushing to put together. It fell through when the Utes pulled the plug.

To get a league, though, Larsen needs some teams to make the jump from Division II to Division I. Utah State, Colorado and Colorado State are three teams that could easily move up, he said, and could immediately be competitive.

"As soon as they made the jump, they'd see that their recruiting would go up. They'd see some better players come into their program," Larsen said.

It could also cause a domino effect where other schools like Arizona, Arizona State, Minot State (N.D.) and Oklahoma would join the Utah schools in the league, Larsen said.

In the meantime, without a league, varsity recognition or sometimes even club affiliations, Utah's college teams manage to do what players at hockey's highest level can't do: hit the ice and play games.