Hockey builds around returning players to strenghten rosters
By Matt Esaena
It’s that time of the year again. One of Northern Arizona University’s (NAU) most popular sports teams has gotten back into the swing of things.
The NAU Ice Jacks held their yearly tryouts and set a new record this season as 88 players laced up their skates in hopes of claiming a spot on either the Division II or Division III teams for the 2012-13 season.
The hockey club has come a long way since its initial season in 2005 when only 16 players showed up to tryouts. This year, over 30 players had to be cut so both teams could man their rosters at 25 players apiece.
“Not only are we getting more guys coming out, but we’re getting more talented players,” said AJ Fairchild, the Ice Jacks General Manager since 2005. “We have the cream of the crop here at tryouts this year. Most of the players here have been well coached, so it makes our job easier when it comes to keeping guys and making cuts.”
Both of NAU’s hockey teams are coming off the best seasons they have had since splitting into two squads four years ago. DII qualified for Nationals for the first time, while a much-improved DIII team reached regionals for the first time in club history, where they were knocked out by top-seeded Iowa State University.
This year, tryouts had a different feel to them. With 88 players battling for 50 spots, the pace and intensity on the ice made it feel like a game played halfway through the hockey season. Players were shooting harder, hitting more and skating faster. Players who came to tryouts thinking they would have all season to get back into playing shape got a rude awakening. Many of the new players come from Arizona’s junior teams; among them are four Arizona Redhawks and some of the state’s best travel club programs such Mission AA and the Desert Youth Hockey Association.
“I think all the competition definitely helps,” said senior forward Michael Farnham. “Returning guys even have to fight for spots, so it keeps everyone on their toes.”
Even with new and improved incoming talent, the coaching staff stressed that keeping a good core of teammates is important when it comes to maintaining consistency.
“I have to start by picking my core guys from last year,” DIII head coach Kris Walsh said. “If I have a core [group] of 15 guys that already know what NAU hockey is about, then it helps the other 10 guys fall into place quicker. It makes my life easier and we see results sooner.”
DIII selected 11 new players to join their roster. Walsh made somewhat of a bold move by taking four goaltenders instead of the hockey traditional three. DII also tried to build the new talent off the core group instead of vice-versa. DII head coach Travis Johanson took only eight new skaters to join his squad.
“Having all these new players at tryouts helped out the competition level big time,” Johanson added. “For the most part, it’s the same team. But with some new talent, guys are going to have to be in competition all season, to get ice time or to not get scratched from the lineup.”
The Ice Jacks plan on hitting the ground running; both teams will start practicing this week. As Johanson stated, just because tryouts are over does not mean the competition is. Neither team has a starting goalie picked yet and the line combinations have to be decided soon as well. Additionally, since Tucker Braund and Joaquin Rivera have graduated, both DII and DII need to name new captains.
The rosters have been chosen, but there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered before DII drops the puck with UA on Sept. 21, the game that will open the season for NAU hockey.