Division: Club hockey squad attempts to rebuild after losing members

The CMU division II hockey team practices at the Isabella Ice Arena on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. Mary Lewandowski | Staff Photographer

Coming into the season, fortune seemed to be in favor of the Central Michigan Division II club hockey team.

After finishing the 2014-15 season ranked 10th in the nation, the team was poised to make a run at a national championship. Most players from last season’s team were set to return, but an unexpected decision splintered the group.

Before classes resumed for the fall 2016 semester, seven players informed DII Head Coach Brian Knopp they decided to join the Division III club hockey team. Weeks before their season was set to begin, Knopp was forced to scrape together enough players to field a competitive team.

Unfortunately for Knopp and the remaining 10 full-time members of the DII team, they were unable to find enough players for competition. Most teams in the American Collegiate Hockey Association have 20 to 30 players on their roster.

Although the DII team still exists, it is not a registered club sport through CMU.

In the ACHA, each division represents a different quality of competition — DII is considered a higher level of competition than DIII, similar to the NCAA Divisions.

After a few players made the decision to switch, the situation snowballed, said senior DIII goalie Alex Estes.

“Once those guys realized they wouldn’t have enough guys to fill out a team, they saw the opportunity to succeed playing for the DIII team and joined us,” Estes said.

Some players saw a chance to see more playing time, which was enough to draw them away from the DII team.

After being put in a difficult situation, Knopp decided to enroll what was left of the team in a men’s league at the Isabella County Events Arena. CMU’s team merged with the Mid Michigan Community College team in order to fill out the remaining roster spots. The group is hoping to use this season as a rebuilding year to rejoin ACHA Division II competition.

Coming out of his team’s weekly practice, Knopp was enthusiastic about the rebuilding effort and the new players he recruited. He said he believes in the process his team is working through despite the challenges they face.

“We have plenty of talent to compete with just about anyone,” Knopp said. “Once the freshmen go through their learning curve of the level of competition, we’ll make some noise.”

Knopp said problems with the DII team began years ago with a five-year suspension handed down by CMU’s Office of Student Conduct after a hazing incident in September 2012.

CMU suspended the team following an incident where seniors on the team forced the freshmen to wear women’s underwear and posted pictures online. Initially, all members of the team were banned from competing for the DII team. After the first year of the suspension, CMU eased off the sanctions, only banning the team from competing in the ACHA DII national tournament for three seasons.

The 2015-16 season would have been the first time since the suspension the team could have competed in the national tournament.

“The freshmen took it on the chin with that punishment and I think it really left a bad taste in their mouth about the team as a whole,” Knopp said.

The implications of the 2012 hazing incident go beyond the official sanctions, as the team still attempts to recover and become reestablished as the maroon and gold’s top hockey squad.

Knopp said the problems with the team went beyond the stigma of sanctions.

“The group of guys on the team were very talented, but they never really gelled together and embraced the team atmosphere,” Knopp said.

The team has had four different head coaches in five seasons and had a couple years ran entirely by its members. Without any real structure and leadership, it caused a rift among players.

After a troubling start, Knopp and Assistant Coach Todd Knaus are attempting to rebuild the program to get back into DII competition for the 2016-2017 season. Both coaches are volunteers since the team is not a registered club team.

Knopp has coached at the I.C.E. Arena for years. He said he got involved with CMU hockey last season through mutual connections at the rink.

“We have a group of guys together now that just love to play hockey and those are the kind of people you want to build a program around,” Knaus said.

Eleven of the players on the roster are freshmen, including treasurer Danny Smith. The coaches rely on leadership to come from the youngest members of the team and Knopp said he likes what he has seen so far.

“For these guys, it’s all about getting a chance to play and win together, and everyone on the team is on the same page with that. We couldn’t ask for a better group of guys to lead our team moving forward,” Knopp said.

Coaches plan on recruiting heavily throughout this year into next offseason. Since most of the team’s current members are from the metro-Detroit area, they are planning to have an open skate once a month over the summer to keep everyone involved year-round.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to get the word out that we are still going strong and plan on coming back to competition next season,” Knaus said.

Their plan is beginning to work, as Knopp and Knaus said more players have shown up to weekly practices as the semester progresses. Other teams have already contacted Knopp to schedule games for this and next season.