It’s ten minutes to midnight at Redwood City’s Nazareth Ice Oasis, a skating rink where halogen lights hang from an aluminum roof and two rows of concrete serve as bleachers and encircle only half the ice.
Two Monday Night Adult Hockey League teams in mismatched jerseys – Blue Martini and Danger – have just completed their consolation bracket game. Now, it’s time for the Stanford University club hockey team to take the ice for practice.
Seventeen players, ranging in age from 18 to 23, file through the scuffed, blue locker room door. They’re not here because they were recruited or because they’re on scholarship to play hockey for Stanford. In fact, they have to pay $350 in dues to keep their spots on the team.
Nor are they here for fame and glory. The club team isn’t officially part of Stanford athletics. They rarely get media attention and frequently play home games in front of only a dozen fans.
Their coaches are volunteers. They schedule their own games and practice whenever they can get ice time at the closest public ice rink; this season, it’s from midnight to 1:30 a.m. Mondays and Wednesdays. They pack up their own hockey gear and pile into their own vehicles to drive themselves to most road games – sometimes as far as Los Angeles, six hours away.
And they absolutely love what they do.
“I play because I’ve grown up with hockey, and this is a really great group of guys,” said 23-year-old Pitch Lindsay, a left wing and senior studying international relations. “This is one of the few commitments I’ve done consistently in my time here at Stanford. People wouldn’t be out here at 12 a.m. if they didn’t really want to play.”
“It’s hockey.” added 18-year-old Sam Bowers, the team’s starting goalie and a freshman studying human biology. “It’s the sport I love.”
It’s the sport all of them love. The team roster includes several graduate students, a freshman, two Canadians, one Swede and even a female player – 23-year-old graduate medical student and forward Stephanie Brenman. She played women’s NCAA hockey in her undergraduate years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before joining Stanford’s club team.
“It’s the first time I’ve played with boys since elementary school,” Brenman said. “And I’ve never played full-contact hockey before. The biggest challenge is the lack of resources [for a club team]. We don’t have a trainer, you’re on your own with injuries, and we don’t get good practice times. But we have fun.”
They also have a small, but mighty group of diehard fans. Kevin Crabb and Ben Almquist, former and current graduate students in materials science respectively, come to as many home hockey games as they can. Dressed in Cardinal red, they’ve been cheering the team on for three years and always sit against the glass.
“Hockey is the greatest sport there is,” Crabb said. “Three years ago, when we started coming, there were only three of us [in the stands].”
“But it’s fun because you get to be so close to the action,” Almquist added. “And when you heckle the other team, they hear you!”
Jim Young, director of media relations for Stanford athletics, said that the university has never seriously considered having an official university hockey team due to “the lack of other universities in the west playing hockey at a NCAA level and adequate
Excepting Alaska, there aren’t any NCAA Division I schools west of Colorado that have university hockey teams. Stanford’s club team is part of the Pac-8 conference of the American Collegiate Hockey Association.
As a Stanford club, the team receives $8,000 in university funding, or about 35 percent of their annual expenses, according to the team president, 20-year-old psychology major and right wing Matt Wong.
Most of Stanford’s team members have played hockey nearly all their lives, but none of them were discouraged from attending Stanford when they learned it only had a club team.
“NCAA hockey plays at a pretty high level,” said James Dudley, 21-year-old senior defenseman studying mechanical engineering and archaeology. “I don’t think any of us were good enough for that… Stanford club hockey takes anybody!”
“I always knew I’d be coming to school for school,” Bowers said. “[Hockey] is what I do for fun.”
Their self-maintained Web site, which hasn’t been updated since September 2009, lists the team roster with several player nicknames. There’s captain defenseman Jack “Daniels” Jorgensen, and forward Chris “Sean Avery” Grieco, in reference to the penalty-prone NHL player. In the locker room, teammates also coined a nickname for their team president. “If it ain’t right, it’s gotta be Wong.”
While scraping ice from their skates and flinging it at one another, the teammates regaled a story about one of their road games in Washington. “We ate at Shari’s Family Restaurant seven times in three days,” Dudley said. “They had 99-cent, all-you-can-eat pancakes! They knew our names by the end of the third day.”
Jokes aside, the team camaraderie is clear. Taku Ide, one of the team’s coaches and a graduate student in energy resources engineering, has been with the team for nine years. He started playing as a freshman in 2000 and played for six years until he exhausted his eligibility as a player. He didn’t want to leave the team, so he’s coached the last three years.
“A lot of these guys are my friends as well,” Ide said. “You get to be real close. We watch out for each other.”
Head coach Howard Neckowitz has coached the team for five years. He played four years of college hockey at the University of Connecticut and now volunteers his time to coach Stanford.
“I’ve played hockey my whole life, and I love being on the ice as much as possible,” Neckowitz said. “These guys get the opportunity to participate in the sport that they love, and also make some friendships on the team. It’s great seeing these guys build up academically and physically over the years.”
Most of Neckowitz’s players quickly recall fun memories with the team, and all will eagerly rattle off stats and highlights from one or more victories against Cal. But the one thing no player or coach admitted to remembering was this year’s record.
“If we win our last two games, it might be about .500,” Dudley said.
In actuality, it’s 4-10.
“It’s one of those years you try not to remember the record too much and focus on the future,” Ide admitted.
Although Stanford did not make the Pac-8 playoffs this year, they had a lot to play for in their last home game on Feb. 5. Their opponent: University of California, Berkeley. The Cardinal and the Bears split the previous meetings this season, 1-1.
Thanks to the team’s grassroots Facebook campaign to get fans to the game, more than 75 supporters came to cheer on the Cardinal – Stanford’s highest home attendance of the year. Crabb and Almquist were in their usual seats against the glass, this time waving a teddy bear with a noose around its neck.
“It’s our last home game of the season, and we’ve got a lot of fans out there, so let’s show ‘em a good game,” Jorgensen told his teammates in a pre-game pep talk.
And a good game it was. It had scoring – a total of eight goals between the two teams.
It had tension – Cal tied the game 3-3 at the beginning of the third period.
It had drama – a brutal check at the end of the second period sent 23-year-old forward and five-year team veteran Max Guise to the hospital with signs of a concussion.
It had a good, ol’ fashioned hockey fight – a scrum broke out to the left of the Cal goaltender with 38 seconds to play, sending six players to the penalty boxes and earning ejections and one-game suspensions for Cal’s goalie, Matt Bloomfield, and Stanford’s Grieco.
And, it had a Stanford victory – the Cardinal finished off the Bears 5-3. In their final home game of the 2009-2010 season, Stanford’s club hockey team earned a standing ovation… from a packed house.