NIU hockey high effort, low profile, all heart


Courtesy of NIU hockey

NIU hockey poses with Santa during a postgame skate with the team after its 5-3 win over McKendree University on Dec. 3. (Photo courtesy of NIU hockey)

By Alex Crowe, Assistant Sports Editor

DeKALB – NIU Athletics is a staple of the university’s identity, with students and fans enjoying time with their friends and seizing an opportunity to watch high-quality athletes represent the school.

NCAA college athletes at NIU go through rigorous training to be at peak performance, all while keeping up with their academics. The players also enjoy top-notch facilities and are put in the spotlight of the university. 

There is one athletic team that shares those traits, but outside the bright lights of NIU’s athletic department. NIU hockey, NIU’s oldest club at 58 years old, is working to better its program, hidden from the spotlight. 

Hockey holds its players to the same standard that NCAA teams such as football and basketball do at NIU, but without the luxuries and perks associated with NCAA-sanctioned status.

The team’s practice schedule includes 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. ice sessions three days a week, but there is no ice rink on NIU’s campus. This means the Huskies must travel 40 minutes away to Canlan Ice Sports in West Dundee – not the Chessick Practice Center like most student-athletes – to sharpen their skills. 

Because the rink is so far away from NIU’s campus, the players have to find their own means to get to practice on time. Players will carpool together to save money on gas expenses. 

Not having a rink on campus also means players have to accommodate their schedules to arrive on time. Sophomore defenseman Luke Marks described his route to practice – one that would seem abnormal to most students. 

“Normally (I) wake up around 4:45 to five o’clock (a.m.) to make breakfast,” Marks said. “Try to get on the road by 5:30-ish to get to the rink at like … 6:10, 6:15.”

The players’ dedication to the hockey program doesn’t end with practice. Head coach Brad Stoffers has his players putting in more time off the ice in addition to the early mornings.

“These guys aren’t NCAA athletes. But, I mean, they’re putting in a time commitment that’s nearly equivalent,” Stoffers said. “We have three 90-minute practices per week. The rink is 40 minutes off campus. So … the commute time really makes that a two-and-a-half or three-hour commitment. There’s two games per week, we have two workouts per week that the guys complete on their own for an hour each.”

Having morning practices until 8 a.m. so far from campus means the players have to cram their schedules to make room for other commitments during the week. 

“I’m going to have five classes in one day – including labs – because I have to not have classes on Fridays because we have so many away games,” Marks said. “So I’ll usually go from, like, 10 (a.m.) till, like, four to five (p.m.) depending on the day.”

Freshman forward Cam Pathana planned his schedule so two of his practice days are shorter at the expense of longer non-practice days. 

“I’ve kind of spaced my schedule out to where a couple days are maxed out and a couple of days are chill. So, I have some days to look forward to,” Pathana said. “Usually Monday, Wednesday, Friday, I have about three classes, and Tuesday, about one.”

Even though the season is taxing, Pathana stays motivated by knowing the work will pay off. 

“This is my future and it’s four years of my life,” Pathana said. “If I can just grind out four years and just put my head down … then I’d be better off.”

Players aren’t alone in grinding through early mornings, long commutes and busy schedules. Stoffers lives in Geneva – a 30-minute commute from West Dundee. While most college coaching jobs are a career, NIU hockey does not have the resources to make that a reality. In addition to coaching, Stoffers works a sales job during the day and is also a father to three young kids: a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old and a 6-month-old. 

Juggling the responsibility of coaching a college hockey team and working in the sales world, Stoffers has to find the right balance between work and family. 

“It can be a lot. I mean, there’s definitely days that are better than others … We practice in the morning, so the kids aren’t up yet when I leave, you know. So I don’t see them in the morning,” Stoffers said. “I just try to be more present at night – something I got to work on. But when I get home, just put things away till they (the kids) get to bed.”

Participating in college athletics usually means expenses are paid for through the athletic department and players have full support from the university. 

Hockey is a club at NIU, meaning it is not a part of the athletic department and do not receive full-scale support from the university. This lack of funding means players must pay up to $3,200 – with freshmen spending an extra $700 for equipment – to play per season. 

Wayne Bower, the general manager and director of hockey operations for NIU hockey, said that ideally, the players would not have to pay, but the expenses that come with playing in the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) require them to cover most of the costs. 

“It’s (player fees) got to pay for the ice. It’s got to pay for travel when we go on the road,” Bower said. “It’s got to pay coaches, it’s got to pay the league fees and the referees for our home games. It adds up pretty quick.” 

The player fees alone are not enough to cover the expenses the team has. The university does provide financial support to the club, but the annual cost for the club to stay afloat extends much further than what NIU provides.

Team President Rodahn Evans said the base funds NIU provides only go towards travel and are not included in the team’s budget goal of $125,000, which can change every year due to changes in ice costs and locker room fees. 

“We don’t ever see that (money) because we use it directly for the bus fares and all that,” Evans said. “So realistically, it’s something that never gets touched.”

Volunteering for events isn’t uncommon for student-athletes. But for NIU hockey, the athletes aren’t working just for exposure – they are working to ensure there is a team for them to play for. With ice fees in the range of $60,000 to $70,000 and locker room expenses at $20,000 – among other non-travel costs – players have to volunteer time in their already busy schedules to keep the program running. 

“We work all the athletic teams. We work on football games, the men’s and women’s soccer games, and we also work, like, tailgating in the football game,” Pathana said. “We just do ball boy stuff, you know? And we usually get paid like $14, $15 an hour. And it’s usually like four people working, and it’s about a three, four-hour game.”

Even though the club isn’t fully funded by NIU, Bower said working a lot of events contributes to a positive relationship with the university.  

“It’s something we can do to give back to the school – to help them,” Bower said. “In turn, they help us. It’s a partnership.” 

During the summer months, while other student-athletes focus on their training and time off, NIU hockey continues working to support its program. Evans and his teammates volunteer at various events year-round.

“We work a lot over the summer … we work a lot for the Rotary Club,” Evans said. “We worked (for) Casey’s, we worked Meijer, we’ve worked Rib Fests and, oh man, you name it. Anything you can work around here for volunteer hours, we’ve done it.” 

Getting financial support is one thing, but getting the support of the student base is a whole different struggle for NIU hockey. With the home ice rink distant from campus, getting student support at games is a challenge. 

Marks recalled a time when he was talking to his professor about hockey and his classmates’ reaction to finding out about the team.

“One of my classmates was like ‘Oh, we have a hockey team? I love hockey. I would love to come watch. Where do you guys play at?’” Marks said. “And I was like ‘we play 45 minutes away in (West Dundee).’ And he’s like, ‘nevermind.’”

Pathana has had conversations with his fellow classmates and said that when students ask about him being on the hockey team, it always ends similarly. 

“They’re always surprised and they always would like to come to games, but the rink is just way too far,” Pathana said. “So yeah, that’s usually how the conversation goes. They always want to say ‘hey I’ll come to one of your games.’ And then they say ‘ah, nevermind.’” 

Aside from the financial aspect, Evans wants to see the school assist in getting eyes on the club. 

“When we’re having big games like breast cancer awareness games, like, it would be cool to see the school able to promote us,” Evans said. “Help us out even with getting donations just by saying ‘hey, check out the link in their bio.’”

The team is currently struggling, having only won four games the entire season. Stoffers knows that before the team can push for more support from the school and catch the hearts of the students, the team has big steps to take not only on the ice but in the community as well. 

“A lot needs to happen. I think, first of all, we need to have a competitive product,” Stoffers said. “Also game day experience. When people come to an NIU hockey game, we want them to have fun. We want it to be family … oriented, affordable, (a) family experience … within the college athletics environment.” 

With almost everything stacked against the team, Marks said the team goes through it all for one simple reason. 

“It’s because we all love hockey so much,” Marks said. “This is where we ended up to play, and this is where we’re going to continue to do anything we can, in whatever fashion no matter how hard it is, to continue to play.”  

Having low support from the university and student base, everyone involved with the program is relying on one another to keep playing the game they love. Through that reliance, Pathana sees his team as a brotherhood. 

“All the boys that I’ve met, they’re literally family now,” Pathana said. “I didn’t think I’d be close to, or be able to make a connection with these kids as fast as I did – but I did – and they’re basically my brothers now.”

As for the future, Stoffers, along with the rest of his staff, have high expectations for what they want to mold NIU hockey into. 

“I want it to be a national contender … I want people to know what NIU hockey is – who it is,” Stoffers said. “There’s a huge opportunity to capture an audience – the market for college hockey in Chicago and Illinois … being that program that’s known on campus, known in the state, known in the city of Chicago, all over regionally and then grow it to national so people want to play here. (So) people growing up playing youth hockey, junior hockey – they want to come to NIU.” 

NIU hockey’s next matchup comes against Waldorf University in a two-game road series at the Albert Lea City Arena at 7 p.m. on Friday. The Huskies fell to Waldorf 6-3 in its last meeting in November.