After four seasons of balancing two teams, Arkansas hockey decided to disband its Division-I team this year to focus its efforts on winning another South Eastern Collegiate Hockey Conference (SECHC) championship with its Division-III team.
The Ice Hogs last attended the D-III National Tournament in the 2017-2018 season and are off to a hot start in 2019 with nine straight wins.
At the start of the 2015-2016 season, Arkansas added a Division-III ice hockey team to Razorback Athletics, expanding Arkansas’ hockey program to two teams. The now-standalone Division-III team competes in the SECHC, which was founded in 2008.
Since the start of the hockey program at Arkansas, the Ice Hogs have won six SECHC championships between the D-I and D-III teams and are competing for a fifth trip to the ACHA’s D-III National Tournament this year.
When the Hogs added a second team in 2015, all aspects of running a hockey organization doubled, which, over four years, became too much for the program’s officials to manage, Razorback hockey program director Brian Gallini said.
“In 2015, we doubled in size overnight,” Gallini said in an email response. “We went from being overwhelmed by having too many players to being in a (position) where we needed players. We dropped the high bar we had set in so many categories simply to make sure we had both rosters occupied by skilled players. But, as we learned, the presence of skill does not guarantee culture. And, at the end of the day, culture wins.”
The disbandment led many of the D-I players to join the D-III team, while coaches from both teams combined to form one staff, with Coach Keller Sims remaining as the head coach.
Junior Joe Marsh, a former player on the D-III squad, said he thinks the merger makes it easier on the coaching staff to be able to focus all its attention on one team, and focusing all the attention on one team provides plenty of benefits, inherently.
One team could result in a greater commitment level from players and coaches, more fan support, better university support and better on-ice results, Marsh said.
While many of the D-I players from last season have taken up roster spots on this year’s team, there are still some D-III players that have remained on the squad, like sophomore left winger Griffin Suga.
“There’s a lot more talent and depth for our team and we are able to compete at a higher level,” Suga said. “It was a little tough at first, but as it went on, guys started to like it and the guys are getting along really well. It’s still the beginning of the season so the team chemistry isn’t fully there yet, but it’s definitely been better since the start.”
The Hogs’ coaching staff held a tryout camp for the limited roster positions at the beginning of the season. The smaller number of roster spots meant many players on the D-III team from last year no longer had a position on the team.
“Since there is a natural skill gap between D-I and D-III-caliber players, and there was no D-I team anymore, all of that skill got pushed down into the D-III level,” Marsh said.
Former Razorback center Wesley Moore thinks that there are pros and cons to the merger, he said.
“Our coaching staff wanted to go in a different direction to build an elite D-III roster with a very competitive atmosphere,” Moore said. “The merger was good for the team in terms of the idea to build a very competitive hockey team with the goal of winning Nationals. However, it did take a hit on many D-III players as far as whether or not to play. The announcement of the merger actually struck me as my first thought of quitting and not finishing out the four years.”
The D-I team suffered three consecutive last or second-to-last place finishes in the Western Collegiate Hockey League (WCHL).
“I’m proud we tried it and, in doing so, became the first SECHC school to field both a D-I team and (another team) simultaneously in the process,” Gallini said. “We learned a lot along the way, and I learned a lot as a leader.”
Arkansas hockey recently picked up three wins on the road after traveling to Nashville and beating Vanderbilt twice and Middle Tennessee State once by a combined score of 29-5. Former D-I forward Chris Stovall currently leads the team in points with 9.
The Hogs will play on home ice twice this month, Oct. 11 and 12, against rival Missouri State at the Jones Center in Springdale.