DeKALB — Bob Dylan once said anything worth doing takes time.
This sums up the first half of NIU’s first season at the American Collegiate Hockey Association’s D1 level. The team’s record currently sits at 3-12 and 3-5 in Midwest College Hockey conference play, tied for fifth place with Midland University.
However, Head Coach Mike Rucinski and his players realize the program is in the early phases of a rebuild, and their record doesn’t reflect the progress that’s been made. This season, Rucinski said he is measuring success based on experience gained, not wins and losses.
“I’m very proud of the boys,” Rucinski said. “It’s not an easy thing when you’re a young team and you’re competing against much bigger, faster and stronger players. Results don’t show what type of job and effort [the players are] putting in. We’re all understanding that it’s going to take some time, and you can’t teach experience, you have to gain it.”
The average age of an NIU hockey player is 19.5 years old. They’ve had a hard time keeping up with the older teams they’ve faced. NIU General Manager Ian Kalanges said the average age of an ACHA D1 team is normally around 22 or 23 years old.
The Huskies also have a lot of fresh faces on the roster. Of the 22 players, only three were on the team last season. Sophomore defenseman and alternate captain Zach Huggins said it didn’t take long for the team to gel off the ice. The Huskies have made it a point to get together as often as possible outside of the rink, because they know it will translate to on-ice success.
“Hockey players usually take to each other pretty quickly, and I think we have a really good group of guys right now,” Huggins said. “Everyone gets along really well. I just think the on-ice chemistry is going to take a little longer than getting everyone to like each other.”
Before the season began, the players realized it was up to them to lay the foundation for future teams. They wanted to instill a new culture that takes the game more seriously within NIU’s hockey program. The skill level of the players on this team is higher than in years past, and they’ve ramped up the intensity within the program. Sophomore forward and alternate captain Brandon Ledyard and Huggins said the team views it as an opportunity to put its fingerprint on NIU hockey.
“We view [building the culture] as a challenge, but we’re all ready to take it on,” Ledyard said. “All of us take pride when we throw on the sweater and hit the ice. We stress that we are our family away from home.”
Ledyard said the team had an eye-opening moment when it traveled to Bloomington to face the then 22nd ranked Illinois State University Redbirds on Nov. 22 and 23. It was the first time the team had won the first game of a two-game set, but it couldn’t complete the sweep when NIU lost game two.
“Taking that loss the way we did was an eye-opener that we really need to come together as a team and each pull our own weight instead of coming down on people,” Ledyard said. “There are different ways that we need to talk to each other, and [the loss] just put everything into perspective.”
Ledyard and Huggins said the team’s biggest improvements have been made on defense. In consecutive weekends, the team struggled against McKendree University and the University of Illinois, allowing 52 goals in four games. But in the next game, NIU locked down defensively in a 2-1 victory over conference-rival ISU. Ledyard said that was a confidence booster for the Huskies.
“That was our first solid defensive game where we played a full 60 minutes,” Ledyard said. “It was a real test to show everyone that we can compete with these teams in our conference and give them a run for their money.”
Moving forward, Huggins said there are still some steps to take offensively. Through the first 13 games, NIU has averaged a tick above two goals per game.
“We’re lacking a bit of creativity on the offensive side,” Huggins said. “Breaking the puck out, bringing the puck into the zone, offensive rushes. I think that’s something we could definitely work on. But that will just come with getting to know each other on and off the ice, building that team chemistry.”
With eight MCH games left to play in the second half of season, NIU is confident that if it keeps putting in the work, the results will follow. Huggins said that after every game, the team comes together more and more, no matter the result.
“The St. Louis Blues last season, before they won the Stanley Cup, were in last place in the standings at the halfway point of the season,” Huggins said. “We’re at about the halfway point of the season, so I’m excited to see what the second half brings. I feel like we’re going to really catch fire here and start doing some damage in our conference