With ASU’s upstart NCAA team being the talk of college hockey, their fellow PAC-12 schools are taking notice, and some hope to emulate their overnight success. The University of Oregon’s club team is working diligently to position themselves alongside ASU and other big name schools in NCAA hockey.
Saskatchewan native Rylee Orr was back in North America after his previous professional contract wrapped up in Europe, and started looking at coaching vacancies. When he noticed U of O’s posting, he recognized the potential the school has based on his own club hockey career at Utah State. “I saw ASU cruising up [the club hockey rankings] on their way to NCAA, and had always expected Oregon to do the same, so I applied for the job, got it, and moved to Eugene.” He talked to his friend and former teammate Cooper Limb about bringing him on board as an Assistant Coach, and suddenly the team had a new core of coaches aligned with their GM Sam Rosenberg’s vision of elevating the Oregon Ducks to NCAA D-1. Currently currently in the American College Hockey Association (ACHA), they are in the ACHA’s D-2, competing in the PAC-8, which is made up of club teams from PAC-12 schools as well as other universities in the region.
“Right away, our goal was to win the PAC-8 and make it to the regional tournament, and we achieved that goal. Next season will be at the [ACHA] D-2 level with some [ACHA] D-1 opponents, with the same goal of the regional tournament and nationals, and we’re hoping to go [ACHA] D-1 the following year,” explained Orr.
“D-1 is more expensive; more travel is involved. Qualifying for the D-1 national tournament requires 16 games against D-1 opponents.” Schools like Arizona, UNLV, Utah, Colorado and Colorado State are the closest teams at that level, so scheduling grueling double and triple-headers over long weekends will be part of the grind.
The higher level is well worth the effort; when ASU elevated their club team, they had just won a national championship in ACHA D-1. This allowed for as smooth of a transition as possible when you go from collecting fees from players (on top of tuition) to offering full-ride athletic scholarships. Penn State was in the same situation when they elevated their program earlier this decade.
Some of the built-in advantages the Ducks possess also drew Orr to the position. “The Oregon Ducks brand…it’s recognized nationwide and in Canada. That makes recruiting easier,” he stated. “The winter weather is also nicer than most hockey schools.” The current roster has six skaters from Alberta, and the team has scouts helping with recruiting in British Columbia as well. Beyond that, the local rink in Eugene is invaluable to the team. Orr boasted, “We’re the only PAC-8 school with our own locker rooms.” The rink also provides a built-in opponent with the Eugene Generals, a local junior hockey team. Because club hockey scheduling allows for some freedom and creativity, the friendly “home vs. home” matches bring out fans of both teams and showcase the hockey atmosphere Eugene is capable of drawing.
Chatting with the coaches made it clear that they are devoted to the cause. “I’ve got all my eggs in this basket; I’m giving it my all,” Orr intimated. His efforts were recognized this season when he was named the PAC-8’s Coach of the Year.
Limb is also doing whatever it takes to make this opportunity work, holding down two jobs in order to have the flexibility required to travel on the weekends during the winter, when the elements are more likely to cause delays. “It was snowing a lot in Lake Tahoe during the PAC-8 tournament, so on our trip back, we went only 12 miles in 3 hours,” Limb recalled.
Limb doubles as the team’s trainer, creating the workouts for their sessions at the gym. They are currently able to reserve a section for themselves at set times, and hope to add a reserved weight room slot in the future, utilizing the school’s legendary athletic infrastructure. One of the major advantages in prospect development NCAA hockey has over Major Juniors is spending more time strength-training at the gym, and the Ducks are positioning themselves to have that aspect covered.
An important mantra of sports is that success begets success, and the team’s successful season is resulting in newfound exposure in the modern era. Broadcasting their games on Youtube allows engagement with Ducks faithful that enjoy hockey. Their jersey looking so darn good helps; ESPN’s resident college hockey aficionado John Buccigross wore it for a broadcast, and NHL on NBC heaped praise on the jersey when sharing it on Twitter. Hockey itself is still a niche sport in the region, and getting new fans to attend games is the first step to getting them interested in both Ducks hockey and the sport in general. Their success is poised to snowball from there.
Their resurgence has the coaches preparing to start a booster club in the near future. “We’re willing to grind this out and do it the hard way,” Limb remarked about their fundraising. While much of the speculation around Ducks hockey elevating to the NCAA is because of the school’s relationship with Nike founder Phil Knight, that’s not the only way to build a team. Accumulating donations towards an endowment can have a snowball effect, attracting bigger donors as the endowment grows over time.
With a dedicated staff building on their success, Ducks hockey is ready to take off. Make sure to become a fan and booster now before the bandwagon starts filling!