NAU’s Ice Jacks continue to make national noise
There are plenty across North America who are just now, at this moment, hearing the words “college hockey” and “Arizona” in the same sentence.
That’s understandable, with the buildup over the past year leading up to Arizona State University’s ascent to the NCAA Division I hockey ranks this season.
But as impressive as ASU’s rise has been, it was actually another Arizona-based college program that beat the Sun Devils to the NCAA punch, nearly three decades earlier.
While not competing at the NCAA level any longer, Flagstaff’s Northern Arizona University continues to field a nationally-competitive program (these days part of the American Collegiate Hockey Association), while also building quite the pipeline for Arizona’s own hockey talent to extend their hockey careers not far from home.
NAU hockey general manager AJ Fairchild said he “gets a kick out of it” – both about ASU’s NCAA jump and the reaction his own program’s success draws across the country.
“Last year at nationals, out of 176 teams in ACHA Division II, one of them is Northern Arizona, and the top seed was from Arizona State,” he said. “But it’s not a surprise anymore. They expect us to be there; we expect to be there.”
College hockey pioneers
While a laundry list of players from Arizona have made their way to the NCAA D-I ranks, ASU’s foray has lit an even brighter spotlight on the state’s youth and college hockey scene.
But some 34 years ago, in 1981, it was NAU that first brought NCAA D-I hockey to southwest.
That program produced multiple long-time pros – including Greg Adams and Bobby Beers, who enjoyed NHL careers of 17 and 8 years, respectively – and on a few occasions played in front of crowds as big as 10,000 inside NAU’s enclosed on-campus enclosed stadium, the Walkup Skydome.
For various reasons – namely Title IX concerns at NAU, financial issues and problems with the stadium’s ice – the NCAA program was disbanded after five seasons, but it would only be a few years until former NAU NCAA player and D-I assistant Doug Allan returned to Flagstaff and brought a club program back into play.
Fairchild took his leadership post in 2005, and over the last decade, the Ice Jacks ascended to the upper echelon of the ACHA’s D-III ranks, becoming an annual national contender. That success ushered in the program’s next era a few years ago when it added a second team.
Today, rostering ACHA D-II and D-III squads, the Ice Jacks, like clockwork, have been perennial regional and national powers at both levels.
Fairchild is so confident in the resiliency of the Ice Jacks – and that of the NAU coaching staffs, led by head coaches Travis Johanson (D-II) and Kris Walsh (D-III)– that despite a slower start than normal the 2015-16 season he fully expects the Ice Jacks to be back in the thick of things come March at both levels.
“We’re always competitive. We feel like our D-II team is playing one of the toughest schedules in the country,” Fairchild said.
While the D-II team managed just one win in its first 10 games this season, it quickly followed that up with three straight wins; and, through the first week of November, that slate (supposed slow start be darned) included wins over the University of Arizona and Colorado State University, both ACHA D-I programs, as well as another over ASU’s “elite” D-II team – the west’s top-ranked team. All the same, NAU maintained its own top 10 ranking – “a sign of respect for our schedule.”
What they do best
While the thought of NAU and the UA also bringing NCAA hockey to Flagstaff and Tucson sounds sounds great, Fairchild contends that the financial, political and logistical realities mean his program isn’t likely to make that leap anytime soon.
But Fairchild is more than OK with that.
“Our city embraces us today, and a lot of that goes back to the fact we had an NCAA team way back when. We also get a ton of support form our alumni even to this day because of that,” Fairchild notes.
One of NAU’s greatest successes, Fairchild says, has been serving as a legitimate pipeline for Arizona-trained players to extend their careers.
This season, 12 players on the Ice Jacks’ D-II roster and another 11 on the D-III team hail from Arizona cities like Gilbert, Phoenix, Peoria, Glendale, Scottsdale, Goodyear and Queen Creek – and that’s not even taking into account players with other local ties, like former Phoenix Polar Bear/Phoenix Knight Junior A player Max Mahood or newcomer Benoit Cousineau of Montreal, but via the Valley himself as well. And, to boot, three more – D-II forward Zac Fader, D-III forward Trey Gonzalez and D-III defenseman Sean Hamblem list their hometown as Flagstaff itself.
The NAU program also prides itself on its connection to the local hockey community. That connection has brought faces like Johansson, a standout during his playing days at Flagstaff High School, and Walsh, a former Ice Jack himself, to the coaching forefront. That connection to the local community also includes its positive relationship with the Flagstaff Youth Hockey Association. In addition to being co-tenants at the Jay Lively Activity Center, NAU has worked with FYHA to allow it’s youth teams (and their opponents visiting from out of the area) free admission to NAU games if they wearing their youth jerseys to the game.
Fairchild said that the support of City of Flagstaff – which owns “The Jay” – and the residents of Flagstaff and other nearby Northern Arizona communities has been invaluable.
“We’re a smaller school, so it’s a challenge sometimes. But because of our program, our campus, and that we can provide a good place for them to go to school, it’s a good situation. And that’s our A1 Recruiting tool – the campus and how neat Flagstaff really is,” he said, reiterating the long-held notion that Flagstaff is built to be a hockey town.
Since NAU is likely the last truly competitive hockey the majority of the Ice Jacks will take part, NAU’s coaches and administrators take it upon themselves to make it something meaningful. That and further expanding the Ice Jack fan base is one reason NAU has worked to secure a couple of games later this season – including one against ASU – about an hour away at the 5,000-seat Prescott Valley Events Center, originally built to house the Arizona Sundogs minor pro franchise.
“We’re helping these players push to the best they can be. They’ll play the best teams, they’ll get to play in regionals and challenge for nationals every year. … I know if they stick with us for four years, they’re going to graduate. There haven’t been too many that haven’t gotten to that point, and we’re proud of that.”
— Brett Fera