The Sault College Cougars men’s hockey team has been ramping up its efforts to ice a competitive squad and garner fan support since joining the American College Hockey Association (ACHA) last season.
Matt Trainor, director of student services for the college, says the division three (D-III) U.S.-based college hockey league offers an option for students who have played hockey at a high level in the past.
“We offer a competitive option for players,” Trainor told SooToday. “For Sault College, it’s an opportunity to recruit players that played high level hockey.”
“Most of players played at the junior level - I think there’s a couple players that played high school - but the majority are ex-junior players that have aged out, and they’re ready to focus on post-secondary education - but they’re still interested in playing competitive hockey.”
The Sault College Cougars currently sit second in the north region of the ACHA D-III, with a 10-2-1 record after splitting a two-game tilt with Michigan Tech’s D-II hockey team this past weekend.
Cougars centre Ryan Vendramin currently leads all ACHA D-III players in scoring with 42 points on the season, with five of those points earned in an 8-4 win over Michigan Tech Nov.11.
A move that makes sense
Trainor says that the team’s jump to the ACHA makes sense given the geography of Sault Ste. Marie in relation to the smaller schools they compete against in Michigan.
Although it’s their second year in the ACHA, the 2018-2019 season marks their first as a team playing in the Michigan Collegiate Hockey Conference (MCHC) within the ACHA.
“The schools within the conference that we’re in - in Michigan - are closer for us to travel to and less costly than southern Ontario, where we compete in the OCAA (Ontario Colleges Athletics Association) for basketball, etcetera,” said Trainor. “We saw it as a cost effective opportunity for us.”
“Because we’re still in our second year, we’re seeing where we land,” he continued. “We’ve had some games where we’ve beaten teams by quite a bit, and some that are close. We’re getting to know the skill level of teams within our division.”
Sault College says joining the ACHA also works for the college from a recruitment standpoint. Travel and accommodations are provided by the college, in addition to per diems for its players.
“From a recruitment standpoint, we see the benefits already in terms of the people we have in place running the day-to-day hockey operations have been fantastic in terms of building the program to be first-rate,” Trainor said.
Sault College could also ice a women’s hockey team in the ACHA, pending approval of its application to the league.
A league of its own
The ACHA issues weekly rankings for its hockey teams, but those rankings compare more to U.S. college football, where rankings don’t necessarily boil down to wins and losses alone.
“It’s also based on the teams that you play and the level that they’re at in terms of what their record is,” Trainor said. “If you’re playing a team that is 0-8, and you beat them 10-0, it’s not really going to help your rankings all that much.”
Scheduling of the games within the ACHA is another quirk of the league.
Trainor says that the ACHA doesn’t issue a season schedule - that’s a task entirely left up to the hockey programs within the league.
Sault College has scheduled 30 games for its men’s hockey squad this season, compared to 18 scheduled games last season.
“It’s really helped us in our ability to get the games scheduled that we need to play enough games to be competitive, and play enough games in order to prepare for the postseason, which is a regional tournament, and then a national tournament,” he said. “It’s a bit of a unique league, but it works for us in terms of flexibility.”
Creating a gameday experience
Trainor says most of its home games during the 2017-2018 season brought in roughly 300 spectators per game, consisting of mainly Sault College students.
The college wants to double its attendance at Rankin Arena for home games this year by bringing more non-students through the doors to watch games.
“We see our students as a huge market that are going to attend hockey games, but we also are very, very excited to see what kind of community turnout we’ll get,” said Trainor. “Our plan is to make it a real exciting gameday experience.”
Trainor says the college is looking at ways of enhancing that gameday experience, from visually appealing player introductions to hiring the services of a DJ and/or live band.
“We want to make it a good college experience and show these other teams that hockey is a big deal for us in Sault Ste. Marie,” he said.
A place to call home
Earlier this year, Sault College president Ron Common sent a letter to the City of Sault Ste. Marie requesting that the college’s campus on Northern Avenue be considered as a site for a new hockey rink.
Trainor says that the college’s hockey program needs a permanent home, complete with all the amenities that a hockey program requires, including adequate dressing rooms and equipment storage.
“Ice time is very difficult for us,” said Trainor. “Our goal is to have a home rink where we have a Cougar presence.”
“The consultants have done their work with the city, so I think a lot more discussion needs to happen to see what will happen with a new rink,”he continued. “Our goal would be to see a rink built on our campus, so we’re going to continue to advocate for that.”
The Sault College Cougars play its first two home games of the season against Oakland University at Rankin Arena Friday, Nov. 30 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, Dec. 1 at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets are $5 with a portion of the ticket proceeds going toward the United Way.