Five hundred and six teams and counting.
That lofty figure represents the number of teams playing college hockey in the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) for the 2017-18 season. The total represents a wide range of programs across three divisions of men’s hockey and two divisions of women’s hockey.
“What we do is allow for competitive college hockey,” said Christopher Perry, ACHA interim executive director/secretary. “We offer the opportunity for kids at all levels to continue to play and represent their schools.”
For teams involved in the ACHA, hockey is a non-scholarship, non-NCAA sport, and the commitment of the players does not go unnoticed by Perry, among many others.
“These are true student-athletes. They don’t get the credit that I think they deserve. They are doing this all on their own; paying for school, paying for hockey and having to work out time off from school on their own. They have to make arrangements to take care of their schoolwork while they are gone. They do it and they do it well. The effort that they put in should be more appreciated.”
While providing a landing spot for players to continue playing a sport they love, Perry believes the time that players set aside for hockey should be an opportunity for enjoyment and, in a way, a respite.
“You play hockey because it is fun,” he said. “The rink is [a player’s] fortress of solitude. It is the place you go and have fun, see your friends and play the game.”
As it is with most student organizations, the ACHA exists to give the players more than just an opportunity to participate in an extracurricular activity. Beyond that, the ACHA hopes to provide valuable experiences for players to take with them upon graduation and entering the next chapter of their lives.
“We don’t want them to just play hockey for four years,” explained Perry. “We want them to play hockey while earning their degree, so they can graduate and become productive members of society. This teaches work-life balance and the time-management aspect.
“These players come in as kids and leave as young men and women who are ready to be leaders. That is what we are most proud of.”
In reviewing the differences in the divisions of play, Perry assessed it not only in terms of ability, but in terms of travel and desired commitment level of the participants.
“I think about it in two perspectives. The talent levels may step down, but Division 1 plays more of a national schedule. Division 2 play more of a regionalized schedule and Division 3 teams play an even more regionalized schedule. Division 2 may venture outside of their region, but Division 3 basically stays within their own pocket.
“The same is true for the women’s divisions as well, and we’re seeing a lot of growth in Women’s Division 2.”
The successful programs have a mix of “ingredients” resulting in high achievement, according to Perry, and between Perry and ACHA Division 1 Commissioner Brian Moran, they work with programs throughout the season.
Moran, who describes his role as the “front-line person with our teams,” provides the channel of communication for the league to the teams and has been in that capacity for more than 20 years.
Moran has seen the growth in Division 1 from approximately 25-30 teams to the current level of 60 teams and noted the enhanced structure of the ACHA, saying, “It was a little less organized in the past; There is a lot more structure now. The growth after about Year 10 has been unbelievable.”
The ACHA celebrated its 27th National Championships at the conclusion of the 2017-18 campaign.
While the number of total teams in the ACHA experienced incredible growth over the years, Moran, a former ACHA player himself at Eastern Michigan University, believes that marketing the ACHA brand is the next area of opportunity for the association.
“We have to grow our name a little bit,” said Moran. “We need to get awareness out there to high school kids and junior kids that there are options. The ACHA offers an opportunity to continue [a player’s] education, get a degree and make friends for life.”
Conversations with Perry, Moran, various ACHA coaches and players often share common themes, and one of those themes is for players to learn from their student-athlete experiences as they accept roles as community members.
“Hopefully we have created the greatest memories of their lives for these players,” said Moran.
Perry added, “I am most proud of these kids that get out there, compete for themselves and for their schools for four years, leave and then contribute back to the game. We are putting good, hard-working, honest kids into society, and hopefully society will be better because of them.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.