Moments after Parkland Middle School’s ice hockey team players and hockey moms shuffled out of The Rink at Lehigh Valley, 10 young men take the newly resurfaced ice for their usual 7:45 p.m. Friday night game. Warming up to a mix that elevates a pulse and drowns out the objections of the referees, there’s a stunning difference between Muhlenberg’s ice hockey team and the visitors. Regardless of what school they play, the opposing team will always have at least double the names on their roster.
A polar opposite from the crowd that lined the balcony three-deep just minutes before for a team half their age, there’s rarely a crowd for the Mules, save for a few loyal parents and classmates, the rink staff, their adopted little brother Duncan and, occasionally, the pep band. While their classmates debate which party to attend, Muhlenberg’s players suited up in full gear, ready to face a team that has them out-staffed, out-coached and out-numbered. Rarely, however, will they be out-played.
From the moment the first puck drops at center ice, most of Muhlenberg’s players will fight for all 60 minutes of regulation. Because the 10 players that make up this team are not only fighting for a win, but to keep their program alive.
Muhlenberg ice hockey boasts a long and decorated history, but few on campus would actually know it. In fact, not many would even know an ice hockey team exists, or existed, including faculty in the Athletic Department.
The ice hockey program began in 1969 when two eager freshmen, Bill Bilinkas ‘73 and Lyle Allan ‘73, formed a team. In its first four years of existence, Muhlenberg hockey went undefeated against both men’s league and college teams.
“Hockey was a big part of my life,” said Allan. “The folks that played when I was there were committed to the game and having a good time. We played ridiculously late hours, paid our own way. The school pretty much ignored us but I met a lot of great people.”
Muhlenberg ice hockey, the school’s only Division II athletic program, continued to rewrite record books. The Mules played five games in two days to become the first ever Centennial Cup Champions. In the 2006-07 season, Muhlenberg won the first ever Great Northeast Collegiate Hockey Conference championship, and made it to the championship the season after before losing to the Rowan Professors. At the end of the 2013-14 season, the last year the Mules were a perennial powerhouse, they headed to their eighth consecutive playoff appearance, boasting a roster with four players in the top ten league points.
And then, without warning, it all fell apart.
Ken Latteman, former head coach, quit unexpectedly, informing the team less than a month before school began. Howard Unrue, who previously served as an assistant coach under Latteman, took over as head coach. But the difference in coaching staff wasn’t the only aspect that changed about how the team operated.
“Ken was a nut job but in the best way possible,” said Billy Rafferty ‘18, alternate captain of the ice hockey team. “It was good, though, because I felt like I was part of the team my senior year of high school. He was so active that he made Muhlenberg hockey what I wanted to be a part of. Howard, polar opposite. Didn’t do shit. How many times did he come into the locker room and tell us it’s our job to recruit players?”
Sam Amon ‘19 echoed Rafferty’s sentiment, “The first time I met Howard, he reached out and came to one of my games. After that day, I don’t think I had one positive interaction with him. Hockey wise, he was probably one of the worst coaches for everyone here – not necessarily his fault but that’s just what it was.”
“The folks that played when I was there were committed to the game and having a good time.” – Lyle Allen
Jake Picker ‘18, alternate captain, appreciated that the coaching staff had a hands off approach, because it allowed players a chance to run the show. However, the lack of commitment, poor relationship with players and absence of pride in the program had a tremendous impact on the fate of the team. According to Alex Rosen ‘18, whose dedication to the team saw him play every position possible, the hockey program he showed up to was not the one he was presented with, not just because the coach was not the same. After years of being dealt the worst hands, there’s more issues than just coaching that led to the team’s eventual demise.
Here’s a peek into the not-so-glamourous world of Division II club ice hockey.
The players store their gear in a run-down garage with a door that doesn’t lock on the edge of campus. At least three times a week, they’d transfer the equipment to the five or six cars it takes to transport both players and pads to their home rink, twenty minutes away from Muhlenberg. The team is only able to squeeze in two one-hour practices a week, on Mondays and Wednesday from 4:45 to 5:45 p.m., in between class and high school games.
Time isn’t the only thing working against the ice hockey team; finances plays a huge role in the existence of the sport at Muhlenberg. There’s an expectation to pay out of pocket even though hockey is one of, if not, the most expensive sports to play. Proper equipment alone can set a player back thousands of dollars, and that’s before league and conference fees, ice time and travel costs and referee payments are added on. With tuition upwards of $50,000 and the school providing the club $4,000 – which only covers the fees to be a part of the American Collegiate Hockey Association – each player must fork over an additional $2,050 each year just to scrape together a legitimate program. With costs that high, it’s infeasible to keep a club team alive without some support.
“It’s not fair to ask 20-to-21-year old kids to go up to parents, who are spending tens of thousands of dollars to send their kids to school, to cover that,” said Amon.
While the players understand that ice hockey will never be a priority, their frustration centers around the lack of support in general from the athletic department and Athletic Director Corey Goff.
“The fact that the athletic director, when me and Jake met with him, tells us he didn’t really know a lot of the stuff that was going on,” said Amon, the emotion visible on his face. “I kind of blame him. He said he didn’t really know much about Howard but who hires a guy you don’t know much about, or at least get to know as he’s been there for years. We go in and we’re talking and he says we’ve got X amount of guys right now. But he wouldn’t hire a coach until we had numbers. Well, how are we supposed to get numbers if we don’t have a coach or an athletic department or school that would help? Anything would’ve been better than nothing.”
Rafferty felt the same way, “It was brutal, the most simple things they could’ve done they didn’t do. It seemed as if it was blatant.”
Goff defended his position on the issue and his department. According to Goff, club sports are intended to be student-centered, student-funded and student-run. However, with a collision sport like ice hockey, the college must also implement additional player health and safety requirements to reduce the risk of injury for students.
“Another requirement for ice hockey is that we have enough players to safely participate in competition,” said Goff. “Our club ice hockey participation numbers have been critically low on several occasions over the past 15 years, making it very difficult to sustain. Although I can completely understand why our students feel that way [being punished for another’s actions], the team being on hiatus this year is more about inadequate participation number than it is about coaching.”
“It was brutal, the most simple things they could’ve done they didn’t do. It seemed as if it was blatant.” – Billy Rafferty
The tension between the club ice hockey team and the school goes deeper than just athletics.
Amon, Rafferty and Rosen all agreed they would’ve chosen a different college if ice hockey hadn’t been an option here. Rafferty and Amon had offers to play elsewhere.
“I would drive to LIU tonight to play hockey with six of us if it meant I got to play the game,” said Amon. “I love playing hockey.”
For them, this is the first time not playing hockey in over a decade, not something taken lightly when it’s what gave them their friends or a reason to call their parents or a sense of purpose and meaning. That’s gone now, at least from their view as a hockey player.
A common mentality in the sport of hockey is to play for the name on the front not the name on the back. Muhlenberg’s ice hockey team never felt that way, even from the beginning.
“There was pride in having done something for myself and like minded souls that is not in the Muhlenberg catalog,” said Allan. “Perhaps that is why a club sport is important, it is not part of the school. The only thing that Muhlenberg had to do with it was letting us use their name – the rest was our own.”
Rafferty said essentially the same, “We got to a point where you looked at the jersey and you looked around, we weren’t a part of the school. We are not a product of the school whatsoever.”
“Obviously club sports aren’t anywhere on their priority list,” said Rosen. “But to show some kind of interest in keeping this alive and building something from it would’ve been nice. It just needed some help and some stabilization. We never got that. I think that says a lot about what the school cares about and that’s unfortunate.”
The ice hockey players graduating this coming spring – Picker, Rafferty, Rosen and two others, Liam Bonner and captain Tyler Tavormina – will have no senior day. They, and all their remaining teammates, will not have the opportunity upset opponents or set benchmarks in their college careers. There will be no bus breakdowns at midnight in Bucknell or an absurd 98 saves by a Muhlenberg goaltender.
But they will all go on to graduate, skin a little tougher than when they arrived. They’ll go to law school and form careers and have children who will one day play the sport that is their world. And, in the words of Lyle Allan, they’ll think back to their days on the ice and always smile.