At six o’clock in the morning, most people are dead asleep. But for the USF ice hockey team, they’re on the ice practicing. It’s part of the reality of being a club sport. On a limited budget, the only time the team can practice is 6 a.m. So twice a week, the Ice Bulls hit the rink at the Brandon Ice Sports Forum just as the sun starts to rise. The lifestyle of club sport athletes sure is different from their scholarship counterparts.
“They practice five days a week with a full weight room facility,” said sophomore defenseman Bobby Brewster. “We practice two mornings a week — we were practicing one day a week. The dedication level is much more because they’re on a scholarship. That’s all they have to do. They don’t have to work. We’re paying our own way to play hockey. Tuesdays and Thursdays we practice at six o’clock in the morning, then I go straight to class and work. I don’t get home until nine.
“I would say at least our top five could have gone somewhere else to play, but they’re not going to play hockey, they’re going to school. They play hockey because they still like it.”
The cost is also pretty prohibitive as the club’s Arts and Sciences fees from student government provide the Ice Bulls with $10,500 a year. However, the cost to rent the ice time for one game, plus paying the referees, sets the club back $1,000 per game for each of their nine home contests. The team also has to pay for its travel costs and equipment.
“I’m passionate about the game of hockey, but the one thing I’ve learned in the last two years is I’m so impressed with about 20 guys who are so dedicated,” coach Mitch Brauzer said. “They practice a couple times a week, they go to school full-time, they have jobs and then on the weekends, they play the games.”
As a club team, the Ice Bulls have to take everyone who wants to tryout for the team and they don’t have the expenses to go out and recruit players. This year, about 40 people turned out for the club, but Brauzer said that it’s the core group of 20 that make the team go.
“Obviously, since we’re a club team, everybody could be on the club,” Brauzer said. “What we do limit, since this is a competitive league, is ice time. That’s when it becomes limited. You’re welcome to practice with the club and be part of the club. We can’t turn anyone down. Everyone that comes out can be an Ice Bull and get on the ice with us and do drills. What happens with anything is the serious people hang around. And that’s really what we want.
“You have to be pretty dedicated to go through what 20 of these guys are doing. And that’s why the other guys fall to the way side. They’re not willing to make the commitment.”
USF plays in College Hockey South, which is a member of the American Collegiate Hockey Association. The league is an official member of Division III this year, and as such, the Ice Bulls could play for a national championship if they continue their current success.
The team is in second-place with 14 points, one point behind CHS leader Georgia. In the last four years, the Ice Bulls have dominated CHS, winning the league three times and finishing first in 2002. But when the team didn’t pay its league dues, the Ice Bulls had to forfeit all 14 of their wins and were ineligible for the league tournament. That’s why Brauzer stepped in to coach the team this year.
“What happens is that it wasn’t organized as far as the paperwork, and the NCAA is very strict,” Brauzer said. “If you’re not registered on time, you’re done. And that’s what happened to the club and that’s why we didn’t get to play in the championship — we didn’t meet all the deadlines.
“But that’s one of the reason why I got involved last year. One of the college guys wanted a quote, unquote adult to oversee the budget. This is why they needed adult supervision to get it done. So, that’s why I would say this is the first organized year of the men’s club.”
With its paperwork in order, the club has set its sights on a higher goal — varsity sport status.
“Basically, our ultimate goal is that we want to move out of the club status, and we’d love someday to get athletic department support,” Brauzer said. “I know it’s a long road. We need to get the attention of Lee Roy Selmon and et al.
“We’ve taken some big steps this year. The club is registered NCAA Division III, and we follow USA Hockey and NCAA college rules. We are a legitimate Division III team this year.”
On the ice, the Bulls dropped their season opener 7-3 to Embry Riddle as the team adjusted to a roster loaded with underclassmen after graduating almost 10 seniors. The young team gelled well as the Ice Bulls won seven of their next nine, including beating Embry Riddle 9-1 on the road Jan. 11.
“Our expectations in the beginning of the year was to come out and not get blown away,” Brewster said.
“It’s come a long way. We’re looking to make a shot at the national tournament and win CHS. If we beat Georgia, we could end up winning CHS outright.”
The Ice Bulls have been doing their work without assistant captain Brewster, who’s been out with a broken wrist suffered Nov. 16 in a 7-6 overtime loss to UCF.
But even the CHS crown might not be enough to get the team a bid to the Division III national tournament.
“It’s not an automatic bid yet, but we’re working on that,” Brauzer said. “As CHS becomes a stronger and stronger league — this year we added Tulane and Florida Gulf Coast (as provisional members to bring the league up to eight teams) — we’ll get more say. I understand Georgia is playing North Carolina, South Carolina and Duke. These are teams that possibly could join CHS next season.
“The point I’m getting at is that we eventually want to move out of club status and start getting recognized here at the university and in college hockey.”