For more about Arizona Wildcats hockey, go to http://www.arizonawildcathockey.org/.
The University of Arizona has had a club hockey team for nearly 40 years, but it's not as if the campus is bursting with awareness.
"We have a hockey team here?" is something that the team's players hear regularly, prompted simply by their wearing of an "Arizona Hockey" shirt.
It doesn't help that up the road, Arizona State University made hockey a varsity sport three years ago and is now playing an NCAA Division I schedule. Or that the NHL's Arizona Coyotes, based in metro Phoenix, chose Tucson as the location for their top minor-league affiliate before the 2016-2017 season — a mixed blessing for the UA team, which sometimes has to settle for less-desirable home dates.
Nevertheless, you won't catch Chad Berman, the Wildcats' coach, whining about any of the above. He's too busy on and off the ice, and he's getting results after three years. This year, the team narrowly missed qualifying for the 18-team postseason tournament in the 64-team Division I of the American Collegiate Hockey Association, and it was a big winner in the community, receiving the ACHA's Community Service Award — tops among all men's and women's teams in all four divisions of the ACHA.
"We value character even above talent," Berman says. "We try to reinforce with our players that kids look up to them. I understand the impact we have, and our players understand the responsibility they have."
Exhibit A might be Chase Lock, a local boy with a brain tumor who has been "adopted" by the team and enjoys unofficial teammate status. Chase's family has had the team over for dinner, and the team also attended his school play. Chase has been to games and practices and counts the UA hockey team as his favorite college or pro team in any sport.
Exhibit B might be "Pink the Rink," an event that raised more than $10,000 for the UA Cancer Center in January. Although the event itself is common in hockey, the Wildcats' approach is unusual in the way it engages the community. A $250 donation gets the buyer a jersey, on which any name can be sewn — perhaps that of a cancer survivor or someone whose life was claimed by cancer. The jersey is then worn during the game by a player, a short bio about the special person goes into the game program and a red-carpet ceremony at the game's end ties it all together.
"It feels like all of Tucson is in the building with us," says Berman, who adapted some aspects from the State University of New York, Fredonia, where he played college hockey — and even explained his vision for "Pink the Rink" when he interviewed for the UA job.
Other efforts by the team this past season included a "Pucks and Paws" event to benefit the Humane Society of Southern Arizona (fans could bring their dogs to the game, and $1,000 was raised), a "Teddy Bear Toss" (700 teddy bears were collected and then donated to a hospital) and Military Appreciation Weekend. The team also participated in a food drive, an elementary-school reading program and a Heart and Stroke Walk.
"We went above and beyond this year," says Corey Hirsch, an upcoming junior on the team from Maryland who is a pre-law major.
Athletes who are serious about the sport and their studies are common on the team, according to Berman, who usually makes a four-point recruiting pitch: a first-rate education at the UA, great winter weather, an enviable hockey environment (the 9,000-seat Tucson Convention Center, with ice and locker rooms upgraded by the Coyotes) and an emphasis on community outreach.
"You can't get that experience anywhere else, and the philanthropic stuff is part of the experience," the coach says. "A major part of this job is to prepare these guys for the rest of their lives.
"This is a special place," he says. "The potential is through the roof."