Oakland’s lesser-known Div. III club hockey team aims for postseason run



By Jake Thielen

What many students may not know is that Oakland University has not one, but two winning hockey teams.

The university’s Division I team has gained the most notoriety, winning a national championship as recently as 2007. This year, the lesser-known Grizzlies’ Division III club team is looking to achieve similar success as a member of the Michigan Collegiate Hockey Conference’s Blue Division, which is a part of the American Collegiate Hockey Association.

However, in order to reach that success the team must first overcome an obstacle that doesn’t affect major sports at OU, such as basketball.

Hockey’s status as a club sport at Oakland means that much of the financial burden is carried by the players themselves.

Second-year coach Troy Barron said the fact that hockey is not a scholarship sport at Oakland can make recruiting difficult at times. While other colleges can afford to buy their players equipment, Oakland simply offers a good education and a competitive team.

“We are not the Yankees where kids get paid in scholarships,” Barron said. “These guys work jobs, they go to school full-time and they pay for their own hockey. It’s like playing travel hockey — you’re paying $300-$400 a month.”

Despite potential financial and recruiting difficulties, Barron has managed to put together a solid program.

Game day

The team entered Friday night’s showdown against Michigan State University at the Detroit Skating Club in Bloomfield Hills with a record of 16-7, which was good for seventh place in the most recent ACHA North Division rankings. The Grizzlies had defeated Michigan State 5-2 on the road in their last game on Jan. 23.

Early on, it looked like Oakland would repeat its previous success against the Spartans. The team came out looking to dominate the game physically in the first period, and that’s exactly what happened.

Barron said setting the tone early with physical play is part of the team’s game plan.

“I think the whole reason for being physical is to get somebody off their game,” Barron said. “You don’t want to be dirty, but you want to force (the other team) up the boards and counter-attack it. The whole thing about being physical is getting them off the puck. If they don’t have the puck on their stick, they can’t do anything.”

The team’s physical play helped create several early scoring chances. After a Michigan State penalty, sophomore forward Derek Sulpizio put home a rebound in front of the net that gave the Grizzlies a 1-0 lead just five minutes into the game.

Michigan State tied the game in the second period, but Oakland team captain Zach Warson put the Grizzlies in front again with a redirection goal with eight minutes left in the third period.

Despite several late penalties, it appeared Oakland would be able to hold on for a victory. However, Michigan State’s Joe Kulczycki scored with just 1.3 seconds left in the game to force overtime.

“I didn’t even know there was that much time left; I was just playing,” senior goaltender Steve Henzie said. “After they scored, I looked up and saw 1.3. It was just like a backbreaker. It was tough to get out of my head.”

Michigan State went on to win the game in a shootout.

“With one second left, you think you have it,” Sulpizio said. “You’re that close, and then they get a lucky goal bounce off the back of the boards. It’s a tough loss, but we’ll come back hard next week.”

Looking ahead

Oakland will look to rebound in its next game against the University of Michigan-Flint Feb. 11, and cap off the season with a trip to the ACHA National Tournament.

“The first goal that everybody set was going to nationals,” Henzie said. “I don’t know if we’re saying winning, but we definitely want to get there, and we’ll take it from there.”

A 6-3 loss to Davenport University in the ACHA regionals kept the Grizzlies from qualifying for the National Tournament last year. Henzie said avenging that loss was a motivating factor entering this season.

“The other number one thing that we set out to do was to beat Davenport, which we did,” Henzie said. “We lost to them in the first game that we played them (Nov. 5), and we won the second game at their ice (Nov. 7). That was one of the big goals, so we accomplished that.”

The ACHA Regional Tournament is scheduled to begin Feb. 18 at the Suburban Ice Arena in Macomb. Barron said he expects the Grizzlies to be seeded in the middle of the pack, but he still has high expectations for his team.

“At this level, any level, it’s who wants it more,” Barron said. “Anybody can win on any given night. If the guys want it, they can play the best, and they can beat the best. It’s not up to the coaching staff; it’s what they want to do.”

If Oakland advances from the Regional Tournament, they would play in the National Tournament in Holland beginning  March 9.

“We won our first game, and we were a period away from going last year,” Barron said. “Hopefully, if the puck bounces right, we’ll be able to be there (this year).”