BY: ADAM TURNER
Kentucky is a warm state known for its warmer sports. Hidden away at Eastern, however, are about a dozen athletes who make up the icy, beating heart of athletics at our university: EKU Hockey.
Many students may not know that such a team even exists, but those players and fans who have been lucky enough to experience it firsthand know that a trip to the ice rink should not be missed.
Currently, hockey at Eastern is a club sport, meaning it’s not primarily funded by the university.
“It’s ACHA, American Collegiate Hockey Association, so it is a college-sanctioned sport, it’s just not recognized by the school as anything more than a club sport,” said Jake Suslowitz, 20, a fire protection administration major from New Philadelphia, OH, serving as an alternate captain and right wing for the team.
“There’s a lot of things that would go into making us NCAA and recognized by the school and all that stuff, but the actual league we’re in is a college league and we play other big schools and stuff, so it’s still pretty cool.”
The Colonels just finished their last home set last weekend against Memphis, losing both games by one to two points.
But, losing isn’t an unfamiliar territory for our Colonels.
“We haven’t won one yet (laughs),” said Jason Gambrell, 23, a math teaching major from Elizabethtown, serving as team captain and defensive player.
“We’ve had some tough games against really good teams and it’s also been a matter of numbers this semester. We’ve only got 11, 12 skaters so basically just two lines. That’s it. And we’ve also got a very young team. At least half the players are freshmen.”
Suslowitz added that location is as another disadvantage.
“Obviously, Kentucky’s not a big hockey state at all,” Suslowitz said. “The kids that are coming to play for us are not coming to school to play hockey. They’re coming for their education first and then find out about the team.”
A smaller pool of players inevitably means a fitter group as well, according to Suslowitz.
“We do a lot more conditioning than any of the other teams in the ACHA just because we have such a small team and we have to keep up our stamina,” Suslowitz said.
“We practice two times a week. Do a lot of running, pushups, stairs, stuff like that. We get on ice for an hour and work on drills and systems. Outside of that, we have gym hours that we have to complete and we also do library hours. Trying to keep our academics up. We’re trying to get it headed in the right direction so hopefully we can hopefully someday have it recognized by the school.”
With such frequent defeat and lowered expectations this season, what keeps these players suiting up every game night?
“I really have no idea (laughs). No, it’s just a game I love,” Gambrell said. “I suppose it’s just something different. When you’re out there, you can think about some things, but most of it is just reaction, I really enjoy that aspect.”
For Suslowitz, who has been playing the game since the first grade, it’s the entire encompassing experience.
“The love of the sport. Our teammates. Our fans,” Suslowitz said. “I mean we’ve been a losing team ever since I got here three years ago, and I’ve pretty much played on losing teams my whole life. I’m just happy to be playing here. This team this year has been the best group of guys I’ve ever skated with. I love being on the ice with them, and I love being around them outside the game as well. Our fans that come out every home game and support us, that’s one of the biggest things. We’re still losing games and they’re still coming out, being rowdy up there and I love it.”
The fans are definitely an essential part of the experience. Each of Eastern’s home games are filled with groups of reliable fans, ready to cheer or jeer at any moment’s notice.
“People around here don’t often get the chance to see hockey. A lot of people that come, it seems, are fire majors and they’re usually from the North and Eastern states where they have hockey, and they come to Kentucky and that’s mostly it for them,” Suslowitz said. “It’s almost become a sort of tradition, having all the fire guys with their helmets up there every game.”
Gambrell said the lure of potential fights attracts many people to their games as well. However, the team is actively trying to curb their more aggressive tendencies.
“We definitely used to fight a lot two years ago, but we’re really trying to get away from that some,” Gambrell said. “Definitely not the physicality, but we’re trying to get away from fighting because it’s really not allowed. Normally if there’s a fight the team will probably get about five minute major penalty and then the player’s off the ice, won’t be able to play the next game. We’ve especially not wanted to fight whatsoever this year because we can’t afford to lose the players.”
Ultimately, despite all the hardships, hard work and defeat, the game is still worth it to the players, the fans and Eastern.
“There’s times when it gets frustrating, yeah, but we’re there to have fun,” Suslowitz said. “We love playing hockey. We get a chance to play collegiate hockey and a lot of people don’t get that chance.”
For more information, check out their website at www.colonelshockey.com or follow them on Twitter @ekuhockey.
Preparations for the next season are set to begin right away, and any interested athletes are encouraged to contact the team.