By Kellen Holtzman - The Virginia Gazette
On a Friday night in late January, College of William and Mary and Catholic University of America club ice hockey players suited up for a late season Blue Ridge Hockey Conference Atlantic North Division matchup.
As the players lined up to take the ice being smoothed over by a Zamboni, a Catholic player quipped, "Gotta love these early games."
The puck drop was at 10:15 p.m.
By the time the final horn sounded Saturday around 12:30 a.m. on the Tribe's 4-1 defeat to the first place Cardinals of Washington, D.C., about 15 fans are left in the tranquil Hampton Roads IcePlex that is adorned with large American and Canadian flags, side-by-side on a wall opposite the scoreboard.
"We don't really have many fans at games," said Simon Zagata, a William and Mary graduate student and assistant coach. "It'll be my girlfriend, (coach's) wife and a couple of players' girlfriends. It's a 35-minute drive from campus. And it's Virginia – Hockey's not the biggest thing in the world."
Hockey isn't always the biggest thing happening for many Tribe players, either.
They chose William and Mary for academics. They play for love of the game, although the club has had its share of success in 28 years including winning the BRHC title in 2011, and boasts some on-campus appeal — President Taylor Reveley has made it a point to attend a game the last several seasons.
The loss against Catholic kept the Tribe out of the playoffs, but with nearly everyone back for next season, players and coaches are excited about what lies ahead for the club.
Coach Ken Felix of Hampton, in his 10th season with the Tribe, believes club hockey is very much a "cyclical" sport. Some seasons, William and Mary is strong enough to compete for trophies and in others, the team is happy to win a game or two.
The BRHC falls under the umbrella of the American Collegiate Hockey Association, the club ice hockey governing body that features three divisions.
The Atlantic and Coastal divisions comprise Division III BRHC this season and the Atlantic features two more subdivisions including the Tribe's and Catholic's home in the North Division, which also houses Northern Virginia Community College, American University and Marymount University.
William and Mary's ice hockey club receives some school funding while the players have to put up $650-900 in dues, and recruiting is luck of the draw for the most part.
Brain over body
"William and Mary is a big draw for the very cerebral crowd," Felix said. "That's just a bonus for us when they're also hockey players."
Zagata fits that mold. The Manton, Mich. native studying law played last year with the Tribe for a semester before suffering a concussion snowboarding. He said he will make money with his brain, not his body, and traded his stick and pads for a clipboard.
In the past, William and Mary's roster has featured players from around the country. Many come from Northern Virginia, like senior defenseman Julian Kell, who can still play next season.
Kell played for the University of New England's NCAA Division III team in Maine before transferring to William and Mary. The Vienna native recently represented the Tribe on an ACHA select squad that toured Europe and featured mostly Midwestern players.
"I think the top players in our league could probably compete at the (NCAA) level," Kell said. "but I guess there's not as much depth."
Serving the team
William and Mary has 17 players this season including a pair of freshmen women, Shannon Griffin of Massachusetts and Vienna's Nazrin Garibova.
Felix, who arrived in Hampton Roads at 13 via his military family, was fond of watching the defunct minor-league Hampton Aces and Gulls play in the Hampton Coliseum. The 2012 BRHC Coach of the Year coached his son in youth leagues before offering to volunteer with the Tribe and eventually becoming an assistant, then head coach.
Felix insists the students run the club, meaning they handle budgeting and scheduling.
Derek Prario, a junior from Wilson, Conn. studying economics and public policy, is the club president and a goaltender.
Prario said, "The type of people that play club hockey – They really enjoyed playing hockey growing up and they don't want to lose that. But at the same time, academics are our priority."
When the Tribe tangled with Catholic, at least it felt like winter outside.
Two days earlier during their weekly IcePlex practice, the temperature outside lingered in the mid-50s, even after 10 p.m.
"It's definitely weird because I'm from Connecticut and used to have some pretty intense snow while I'm playing," Prario said.
Imagine how center Jake Kisch, a freshman from Minnetonka, Minn, felt.
Like most of his teammates, Kisch grew up playing hockey and played for his high school team. There were just more rinks to go around back home.
"It's a lot different," Kisch said. "I get a lot of crap from the guys, like, 'Oh, Minnesota, don't-cha know.' Frozen lake, all that. But the passion for the game is all the same once we get on the ice."
William and Mary takes the rink for its weekly practice after the Peninsula Prowl finishes.
The Newport News-based Peninsula Prowl Youth Hockey Association features house and club teams, ranging in level from mites to high school. According to a club representative, about 12 percent of its players come from Williamsburg, which does not have an ice rink other than Colonial Williamsburg's seasonal outdoor rink. After the CW ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2015, Tribe players offered skating instruction during the celebration.
"I do get a lot of people that don't know we have a hockey team," Prario said. "There's actually a surprising amount of interest. I see people walking around in jerseys all the time."
High profile fanfare
Because of the distance from campus to the IcePlex, the Tribe does not receive the same fanfare as some of its regional adversaries. Catholic and Christopher Newport University are among those that are known for having produced festive atmospheres in the past.
But the Tribe does have one very prominent supporter in Reveley.
"Like all the Tribe's club teams, our ice hockey team is amazing," Reveley wrote to the Gazette. "These guys have to drive to Hampton to find ice, and then they usually can't use the rink until late at night. When my wife, Helen, and I get to ice hockey games, they tend to start at 11 p.m. and end around 1 a.m. This is bracing, but it's always great to see the Tribe take on much larger teams and, against all odds, beat them.
"Then there are some seasons when the team is able to recruit plenty of experienced players, and William and Mary reigns supreme. Either way, the passion and determination of our W&M players is something to behold. Club ice hockey at W&M has also been enormously helped by a volunteer coach, Ken Felix, who has served selflessly for years, providing vital continuity and counsel."
Against Catholic, sophomore goalie Scott Murray was terrific for the Tribe, making a bevy of stops including a sprawling third period save that he followed up by scrambling to his skates to knock away a rebound attempt.
William and Mary freshman Patrick Andros scored the game's opening goal on an assist from Noah Kim before Catholic leveled in the second period and seized control.
William and Mary finished 3-5, tied with American for third in the Atlantic North, but the Tribe lost out on the postseason due to a tiebreaker.
This season was not one for the history books like 2011, but the Green and Gold expects to return each player except defenseman Tristan Vernon.
"We'd always like to do better," Felix said before stepping onto the ice for practice prior to the Catholic game, "but I think we have to take a look at where we are as a group – The success is coming back."