Dual benefits galore as NCAA, ACHA men’s hockey teams now available to schedule, play one another during regular season – College Hockey

Alaska Anchorage’s Carter Belitski gets a shot in tight on UNLV goalie Landon Pavlisin in a game earlier this season in Anchorage (photo: Skip Hickey).

Their teams don’t compete at the same level of college hockey, but with regards to scheduling games, there’s a lot to the shaded area of the Venn diagram for Alaska Anchorage coach Matt Shasby and UNLV’s Anthony Vignieri-Greener.

Shasby, an Anchorage native and former UAA player, was introduced in Oct. 2021 as the Seawolves’ seventh head coach in program history, but their first since the program was eliminated 14 months earlier as a cost-cutting measure. UAA hockey was reinstated last year after fundraising totals surpassed $3 million.

On Nov. 1 of that year, Shasby’s first day on the job, he immediately turned his focus toward scheduling games for the 2022-23 season. That work is always going on, and it’s particularly tough for teams like UAA and the Nanooks of Alaska, six-hour drive away in Fairbanks. Not belonging to any conference hurts, and they get limited relief from having home games exempt from visiting teams’ 34-game scheduling limit.

“Being an independent, you’re battling every single year to find those games,” Shasby said. “Especially home games, because convincing people to come up to Alaska is a real tough sell.

“You’re literally making cold calls to everyone in college hockey and just asking for open dates. As you slowly get them, you piece your schedule together and hope that teams continue to have slots available, or you have slots available. Thirty-four games is a pretty reasonable number to put together, and it doesn’t take much, but you’re so at the mercy of college hockey teams who build schedules two years out.”

Shasby scheduled what he could get for this season, but he had more options than just scheduling other NCAA Division I teams.

Last year, when scheduling exhibition games against Canadian opponents was curbed amid pandemic-related border restrictions, the NCAA allowed member men’s and women’s hockey teams to schedule non-counters against other college hockey teams. These included programs playing in the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA), a non-scholarship organization with over 460 colleges and university-affiliated teams across five divisions: three men’s, and two women’s.

This opened the door for ACHA coaches like Vignieri-Greener, who for years wanted to schedule games with NCAA Division I teams. Suddenly, this season, UNLV got four. The Rebels opened Oct. 1 at Denver, visited UAA two weeks later for a weekend set and then played the Seawolves on Nov. 16 in Henderson, Nevada, 12 miles from the Las Vegas Strip.

Scheduling those games was, at least in part, circumstantial.

Denver had faced ACHA competition before, hosting Lindenwood last season, and the Pioneers’ 10-0 win over UNLV came into being after Colorado College and Air Force scheduled an exhibition together.

UAA might have gotten the better deal out of scheduling UNLV, despite two of the Seawolves’ three wins against the Rebels being decided by one goal.

Getting the Rebels home-and-home worked out logistically, too. UAA bused to Nevada following a series at Arizona State, and before that, the Seawolves visited Air Force at the start of what became a 16-day road trip.

“I knew Matt was with a first-year team that needed to get some games, and he obviously wanted some home games, and we knew that to play them, we’d need to go up there,” Vignieri-Greener said. “That was easy for us, and when they were coming to Arizona, I was like, ‘Hey, do you want to pick up an extra game?’

“We had Liberty coming in to play us (on Nov. 18-19), and I had to talk to them but we could get an extra game for Anchorage there, too. There were a couple phone calls, texts, emails and whatnot, and then we got it locked in.”

UAA beat UNLV 8-0 in Anchorage on Oct. 14, then squeaked past the Rebels twice more and thumped Liberty 9-1 on Nov. 17 in Las Vegas. Those wins helped the Seawolves’ (2-8) confidence in what has otherwise been a tough first season back.

But what are NCAA-versus-ACHA games like to play in, and might we see more of them in the future?

‘We got our ass kicked’

Rick Zombo has led Lindenwood’s men’s hockey program since 2010, but more eyes have been trained on the Lions this season, their first at the NCAA Division I level. They’re fresh off an ACHA Division 1 national championship, won on their home ice, but three games into their 2021-22 campaign, they fell 9-1 at Denver.

Does Zombo remember much about the Lions’ visit to the eventual Frozen Four champions?

“I do, we got our ass kicked,” he said. “We had the puck in the neutral zone four times in the second period, and the day we got in there, we practiced and 15 minutes in, our young guys were really struggling because they weren’t used to the altitude.

“You don’t realize that it’s a factor until you’re there, but there’s also the skill and depth of Denver. They were far superior, never breaking stride, never looking down. They were very connected and very organized as a team, and they were just awesome to watch. Unfortunately, it was against us.”

Lindenwood is a different team now. Different, even, than the Lions were at the start of this season. They opened 0-4 with two losses apiece at No. 2 Minnesota and No. 7 Michigan, but won four of their next 10 games.

By the end of this season, Lindenwood will have played four weekend series against Big Ten teams, and two more against NCHC foes. That’s a tall order, but Zombo hopes it’ll pay off down the line as he looks to get big-name teams to visit the Centene Community Ice Center, a three-rink facility Lindenwood calls home and where the NHL’s St. Louis Blues train.

“That’s a focus of our program: to sell college hockey in St. Louis,” Zombo said. “These are 100-year-tradition, championship programs we’re playing against, so we want to make sure not only that we have a litmus test for where our program needs to get to, but that we can market it to our community and to our recruits.”

Lindenwood also hosted Air Force for two games last season, losing both by a combined 13-4. There can be lumps to take when ACHA teams schedule these games, but as Shasby pointed out, respect goes both ways.

“I was very, very impressed,” he said of UNLV and Liberty. “There’s not a massive difference between, I would say, the bottom 10 teams in (NCAA) Division I hockey and all the top teams in Division III, or with these club teams.

“I think they’re getting a lot more attention, and there’s a lot more kids considering ACHA Division 1 hockey. It’s becoming more organized, and there’s more money going into it. The skill level and their compete level was great. Obviously, they’re probably getting up for those games more than others so that they can prove something and say they can beat a NCAA Division I team, but both those teams were very well coached with good goaltending.

“UNLV’s compete level was very impressive, and Liberty’s size and skill set was really good,” Shasby continued. “It was significantly better than I thought it was going to be when I scheduled those games, so I was really happy with the overall outcome.”

With one eye to the future, Denver coach David Carle was similarly complimentary toward both UNLV and Lindenwood.

“We thought Lindenwood was a good experience for our players but also for them, in trying to grow the game of college hockey and giving them a taste of what it’s like,” Carle said. “When we knew CC and Air Force would play each other, we tried to look around at who would be another good team at that level Lindenwood was at last year, and maybe has had rumblings of wanting to look (at transitioning to NCAA) D-I.

“It’s also a situation where we wouldn’t have to return the trip, per se. If you play another D-I school, they’re going to want you to go back to them, and it’s probably not something we’re very interested in, as far as playing an exhibition game on the road. We just felt like it was a really good synergy to invite UNLV out to play us, and I thought they were very good and that it was a really good experience for us, and hopefully for them where it opens their eyes a little bit even more to, ‘Hey, this is something we maybe want to try.’

It’s not that easy

There may be more money in and attention toward ACHA hockey these days, but not all ACHA programs are equal.

UNLV’s program operates in relative luxury. However, holding the ACHA Division 1’s No. 4 ranking at the time of writing, the Rebels draw a healthy fan following in a city where there famously is always something happening.

The Rebels play their home games at City National Arena, the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights’ practice facility. On weekends when the Knights are on the road and there aren’t Ultimate Fighting Championship events or major concerts to contend with, UNLV often sells out a venue that seats around 700 fans and accommodates another 400 in standing-room-only sections. When the Rebels brought UAA to Henderson, on a Wednesday night, 2,100 fans were there.

UAA had a good turnout there, too, as around 30 Seawolves fans were in attendance. Previously, when UAA visited Arizona State, the visitors had an estimated 100 fans at Mullett Arena. Shasby expects that games at ASU will be the Seawolves’ biggest draw for fans either willing to fly down, or are in the area already.

UNLV usually takes four plane trips per season, and busing for the rest makes an annual team budget of just under $600,000 — which includes coaches’ salaries — seem even better than it already was.

“I wish we ran a half-million dollar budget at the ACHA level,” Zombo said. “We did not, but NCAA Division I is four times, five times more expensive.

“You’re not allowed in the NCAA (Division I hockey structure) unless you have the finances to do it, and the wherewithal to have shelf life. An appropriate budget, staffing, scholarships, you need all that.”

The move promises to have been worth it for Lindenwood, and while there’s hope that other ACHA powers might move up, too, more potential NCAA-versus-ACHA games might depend on it.

Denver won’t play exhibitions over the next two seasons: the Pioneers visit Alaska next year, and UAA in 2024. Shasby said he’s open to scheduling ACHA teams again, but not just for the sake of getting a weekend spoken for.

“The main reason why we played UNLV is because we’re trying to convince them and help them and help their administration start thinking about maybe becoming an NCAA team,” Shasby said. “If there are any other schools out there that are considering it, it has to be a part of our overall vision to help them along so that we can maybe start another conference here.

“We would play them again, but it would need to have a purpose other than just a hockey game. Having only 34 games in your season, it’s so limited where you need to be playing at whatever level you’re at, but if there’s a team that says, ‘Hey, if you play us, then our (program) is going to go Division I next year,’ we’ll find a way.”

It might even help teams like the two Alaska schools find a new, geographically-sensible league home.

“The independents have had conversations, but right now, we’re too spread out,” Shasby said of a group that includes Lindenwood, Arizona State and East Coast teams Long Island and Stonehill

“There’s six teams, but it’s Alaska to New York and Arizona. It doesn’t make sense for that group to get together, so we just need to encourage and help teams, whether they’re in California, Utah, Vegas, Oregon, Washington. We need a couple more to come online and get this ball going.”

Shasby is confident the next ACHA program to make the jump to NCAA Division I would be UNLV, but the Rebels’ coach thinks room for growth extends not only to Las Vegas, but the Pacific Ocean.

“That is a goal down the line, and I think that our school sees that there’s potential and a hockey market,” Vignieri-Greener. “We’re really competitive at this level, and obviously ACHA isn’t (NCAA) Division I, but there are some really good ACHA D1 teams in the top 20. To keep the ball rolling and maybe get a feasibility study done over the next year would be great, and then we’d just see where it goes, but I feel there will be at least two to five more schools in the west in the next five to eight years that will get NCAA Division 1 teams, or should.

“Hockey’s growing so fast, especially in the west. The talent pool in California is crazy, and if all the California kids stayed at home and played for UCLA, USC, they’d be top-10 teams. They just need to get a school to grow the game, and I think the way the game is trending and picking up in popularity, we’d really be shooting ourselves in the foot as a hockey community if schools in the west didn’t start going (NCAA) Division I.”

Potential NCAA hockey newcomers would do well to get a sense of what they’d be in for. Zombo could tell them plenty, as he put together Lindenwood’s 2022-23 schedule over eight days this spring, after the Lions won their fourth ACHA Division 1 national title.

It’s not that easy making the jump, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

“There’s a lot of ACHA teams that want to make the move up,” Zombo said. “Some are more geographically suited than others, but there’s also internal and outside perceptions.

“Nobody had any inkling at all that Lindenwood would win what we have, and we’re very competitive. I wish everybody the best, but I know there’s a lot of work that takes place.”

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