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Northern Arizona University’s ACHA teams find niche in Flagstaff community

 

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Lots of college programs like to brag about how hard-working and how ingrained in the community they are.

Few can match Northern Arizona University’s hockey program and its love affair with Flagstaff, however.

In addition to their better-known roles leading 20-something college student-athletes, the head coaches of both of NAU’s American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) teams, Travis Johanson (Division II) and Kris Walsh (Division III), have six-year old stars on local Mites teams.

“They get up early in the morning and coach, too, and then they’re there for the last game when NAU plays Arizona State or whoever,” said NAU director of hockey operations A.J. Fairchild. “Those guys are really dedicated and those are the type of things that keep that continuity going.”

The IceJacks are so popular that while NAU features NCAA Division I football and men’s basketball teams, IceJacks have been voted most popular team on campus by the student body five times.

Johanson said he wasn’t sure, but that he doesn’t think most ACHA teams get the kind attention the IceJacks receive.

Johanson was born and raised in Flagstaff, played on the first Flagstaff High School team, which went 36-1, and took over head coaching duties of NAU’s top hockey team from his father, Keith, in 2012 when he retired.

Walsh is a former IceJacks player who in 2009 started the Division III team.

Fairchild said anything that involves hockey in Flagstaff, NAU wants to have a major role.

“We’re a big part of the community, we have coaches embedded throughout the Flagstaff Youth Hockey Association,” Fairchild said. “We always have a couple forwards and goaltenders that work directly with the youth coaches and directly with the kids, from Mites all the way up to the high school team. We like to keep that connect.”

Johanson said NAU students and Flagstaff locals support the team well.

“We appreciate it,” Johanson said. “We’ve got a good following. The hockey community in Flagstaff follows the team pretty well.”

Fairchild noted that even though their rival ASU has a much larger student body and a lot of very good players, they don’t have the same following that the IceJacks do.

NAU hockey doesn’t have to compete with the Arizona Coyotes or ASU’s NCAA team, but a big part of their support to Fairchild comes from getting NAU students addicted early.

“We really have a culture here and when freshmen come to the games, they see how exciting it is and our small little building and we pack 800 people in there, yelling and screaming and next thing you know, they’re hooked, ‘When’s the next game?’” Fairchild said.

In addition to in-state students, NAU lures students from hockey-rich states like Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, North and South Dakotas, Utah and California, some of which end up suiting up for the IceJacks.

NAU students love the IceJacks even though they have easier access to the varsity Lumberjack teams.

“It’s really funny, because we’re not a part of the athletic department, yet we’ve always been one of the more successful programs, and students have to pay,” Fairchild said. “They could show their student ID and get into the football or basketball games, but they have to pay to come to our games and we jam them in there for all of our home games, so that’s great.”

Colorful history

Much of NAU’s current hockey success can be traced back to its ups- and downs-filled history.

NAU hockey debuted in 1971 when chemistry professor Gerald Caple started up the club team. The IceJacks grew to be so successful that after beating the University of Arizona and Arizona State’s hockey teams, they played the Pacific Hockey League’s Phoenix Roadrunners before 4,000 fans.

Then in 1981-82, the school fielded its first NCAA Division I hockey team. As an NCAA independent, NAU faced the likes of Michigan State University and Ohio State University and produced NHL players, most notably Greg Adams, who played from 1982-84. The British Columbia native played 17 years in the NHL, including a Stanley Cup Finals appearance with Vancouver in 1994 and two seasons with the then-Phoenix Coyotes from 1998-2000

Adams still comes back for alumni games.

“There’s always been a history here,” Fairchild said.

However in 1986, state budget cuts, Title IX considerations and facility problems with Walkup Skydome led to the end of NAU NCAA hockey.

However in 1991 when the ACHA era dawned, NAU hockey returned, led by former NAU club/NCAA assistant coach Doug Allan.

The IceJacks next big renaissance came in 2004 when Fairchild moved from Pittsburgh to coach NAU, which was in ACHA Division III at the time and having financial problems.

“My first year I was there, we had 16 kids show up and whoever showed up was on the team,” Fairchild said with a laugh. “Now normally we have 80, 90 something kids that show up. We’ve expanded from one team with 16 kids on it to two teams of 28 players on the roster.”

Fairchild said the key to growing the program was hard work and success, which bred more success

In those 11 seasons, NAU has become a fixture at the ACHA national tournament, making it seven times.

North stars

While the history has been colorful, the future is bright for NAU hockey.

The IceJacks expect to make a return to Division II national tournament after being shocked by UNLV last year.

“I think we’ll have great forward depth, possibly deeper than we’ve been before,” Johanson said. “We should be fast, we should be really exciting.”

After playing a few games last season against ASU at the Prescott Valley Event Center, the former home of the Arizona Sun Dogs pro team, NAU will play eight there this year.

“It’s a top-notch facility,” Johanson said. “It doesn’t get much better than that. It should be interesting, it should be fun. We’re excited to get back down there and see if we draw another big crowd. It’s always fun playing in front of that many people.”

Even though Prescott Valley found a replacement tenant for the Sun Dogs — minor league basketball’s Northern Arizona Suns — they wanted NAU back.

The IceJacks will face a couple in-state rivals and Cal Lutheran, a promising second-year program from Oxnard, Calif., in the 5,100-seat arena.

“We had the huge success last year and the rink came to us and said, ‘Hey man, what do you want to do?’ and I said, ‘Well, we got ASU, we got Grand Canyon University’ and they said, ‘Man, just book those games. We want to play them up here at our place,’” Fairchild said.

Glory days are back for NAU hockey.

They’re even considering moving both teams up a division after the ACHA invited them to make the jump.

“We’re getting higher quality players in and we bring a reputation for NAU hockey around the community and the hockey community,” Johanson said. “So it’s growing every year. We’re looking to make a step up to Division I, so I think it grows every year.”

Photo/Barbara Sherman Photo

– James Kelley