It was Friday, January 22, and music was pumping at the ice rink inside The Jones Center in Springdale. It was no ordinary Friday night — for the first time since a gut-wrenching cancelation that cut short the 2020 postseason, the Razorback Hockey Club was about to hit the ice. With attendance capped at 100 spectators to accommodate social distancing, the entry line stretched down the long hallway, and many would not get the chance to see the Ice Hogs.
“It was like ‘Wow, this is how much people care,’” recalled Zach Wilson, a junior winger from St. Louis. “This is how much people are invested, the city, the school, into this team. It just meant so much.”
From the relatively packed house on opening night to a shot at the American Collegiate Hockey Association Division 3 national title in April 2021 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the Razorbacks felt the love all season long, Wilson said. Their near-perfect record last season raised awareness of the team’s existence and support for its fast-paced, high-scoring product, which validated all the time and money the athletes poured into the program to make it possible.
Though it uses the “Razorbacks” moniker, the hockey club is not officially sponsored by the University of Arkansas in the same way sports like football and basketball are. University Recreation provides the team with direction, time and effort, just as it does any club team, head coach Keller Sims said, but the squad does not receive much in funding.
“We have to pay for ice at The Jones Center, we have to pay for every practice, every game, pay for the officials,” Sims said. “That and our travel, since there aren’t a ton of teams around us, are what drive our expenses up.”
All those expenses factor into player dues, which exceeded $2,500 even in the abbreviated 2020-21 season. Along with having to pay for a spot on the team, players are not granted the same class-scheduling leeway as NCAA athletes. The team practices twice a week between 6 and 7:30 a.m. to avoid class conflicts, often forcing players to wake up around 4:30 a.m.
“You’re supposed to make your own time for school,” former forward Parker Tillson said. “Throughout the week it was definitely tough getting sleep with a busy schedule like that.”
The team requires players to maintain a 2.5 grade point average to suit up every weekend, compared to the NCAA’s 2.3. Failing to meet the mark results in a semester-long suspension, which serves as extra motivation, because road trips do not qualify as excused absences from class.
“The first semester I was here, I was like, ‘Hey, I’m not gonna be able to be here for this test. I’m going with the hockey team, we’re going on a road trip,’” Wilson said. “And the professor just basically said, ‘That’s tough, you get a zero on it if you’re not here,’ so we have to work extra hard to make sure all our class work is done ahead of time.”
Despite the glaring differences from university-sanctioned athletics, Wilson said his recruitment process was similar to any NCAA athlete. In fact, he entertained offers from smaller NCAA schools, but it was assistant coach Andrew Falls who sold him on Arkansas at a showcase in Minnesota.
“‘Do you want to go to a small Division 3 school and have to pay three times the tuition, or do you want to go to the same school academically, have a lot more fun, pay a lot less money and play on a successful hockey team?'” Wilson recalled Falls asking him. “And for me, that was a no-brainer, so that’s why I’m here now.”
Falls has spearheaded recruiting efforts all over the country, attracting players from seven states, Ontario and Slovakia. No members of the 2020-21 team were native Arkansans, perhaps because it is anywhere from 2 1/2 to five hours from any point in the state to the closest National Hockey League city.
“I had no idea if people really cared,” Tillson said. “But you get people to come to the games, and they’re like, ‘Why didn’t I know about this before?’ We made hockey fans in Arkansas, which is just a weird sentence to put together.”
Growing interest in Razorback Hockey led to the birth of a second team in 2015. There was the original ACHA Division 1 club, and the new Division 3 team, which thrived in the lower division. Juggling two squads proved to be a logistical nightmare, so the program’s leaders decided to downsize in 2018 and settle in D3, forcing players like Tillson out.
“I was a third- or fourth-liner when I was playing my junior year,” Tillson said. “They were going to add eight or nine kids, and I was just going to get scratched every game, so it wasn’t worth my money, it wasn’t worth my time.”
Since the merge, the Razorbacks have been one of the most competitive teams in ACHA Division 3. In 2020, they took a 32-2 record into the South Eastern Collegiate Hockey Conference title game against Ole Miss. Arkansas peppered the Rebel goaltender with shots, but ultimately fell 3-1 in what Wilson called the toughest loss in his life.
It stung even more when COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the national tournament a few weeks later. The 2020 squad was a national-championship caliber team, Wilson said, which gave everyone extra motivation for the 2021 competition.
The Ice Hogs tore through the group stage in 2021, even getting the better of northern schools like Central Michigan University and the University of Michigan.
“It meant a lot to put Arkansas on the map, because a lot of the times in these tournaments in this league, they favored the Michigan teams,” Wilson said. “These are the guys who probably get the benefit of the doubt, as far as rankings go, so it’s good to just kind of show them Arkansas is here to compete, and we’re here to compete for a national championship every year.”
Wilson and Tillson both noted the shift in recognition the team has received since their first seasons with the club. They wear team merchandise around town, receiving either messages of support or the polar-opposite “We have a hockey team?” But over the last few seasons, it has skewed toward the former.
“Just that step means the world to me,” Wilson said. “And I know it means the world to the guys, just seeing this program grow and have the school recognize this success we’ve had. It’s really special.”
The Ice Hogs will return to action at 7:30 p.m. Friday, September 17 at The Jones Center. The East Texas Baptist University Tigers will visit Springdale for the first two games of the 2021-22 season.