Texas A&M men’s ice hockey won the Texas Collegiate Hockey Conference Championship this season, but because of the coronavirus, the team has lost key recruiting opportunities that will make it difficult to defend their championship next season.
The team’s final regular season game was a 5-4 victory against long-time rival Texas at Spirit Ice Arena on Feb. 1. The Aggies went on to beat Dallas Baptist University 5-3 for the conference championship.
Texas Collegiate Hockey Conference Commissioner Sean Boyle said the sport was lucky to have finished the season before the pandemic shut down all other club sports.
“We are fortunate we had our playoffs before all of this,” Boyle said. “We hope everyone stays healthy, and we get this taken care of.”
Without offseason camps, A&M head coach Derrek Harper said recruitment for the 2020 season will be hit or miss.
A former professional hockey player, Harper transitioned to head coach in the middle of the 2019-2020 season and instantly connected with the players. Harper said the coaching change also affects the team’s recruiting.
“I think there is a ton of pressure because all the other teams are going to have the kids they’ve been recruiting all year,” said Harper. “I’ve come in the last hour, basically.”
Despite the odds seeming to be against the Aggies, players said they have confidence in Harper to get the job done.
“I think Harper is a great coach,” said forward Jackson Greer. “He has a ton of experience in hockey since he played professionally.”
For the graduating A&M seniors, their final home game ended in a victorious celebration as they got revenge for a 4-1 Cotton Bowl loss against Texas, whose head coach Aubrey Berkowits is a former A&M hockey player.
Because of his familiarity with the A&M team, Berkowitz had a good idea of how to slow down the Aggies, while Aggie players said their main concern was the Texas goalie, said A&M defender Jacob Norwood.
“By far their number one player that stands out is their goalie,” Norwood said. “We can outshoot them 10 to 1, but they could still beat us because of their goalie.”
Texas goalies are historically tough on the A&M hockey team, said Greer.
“It’s frustrating because we put in the effort, but at the end of the day it matters where you put the puck more,” said Greer.
Senior night at A&M’s final home game against their rivals far surpassed their usual crowd of around 200 people and was 10 times that at around 1,200 fans. Their rivalry game against Texas usually sells out, Greer said.
“We look forward to this game all year,” Greer said. “We’re always pressured to perform well regardless of who we are playing, but playing against Texas is definitely one of the most exciting games.”
The rivalry between the two schools adds to the intensity of the games, said David Weindenfeller, stepfather of Texas reserve goalie Sean Triece.
“They’re very aggressive and much more intense because of their long rivalry,” Triece said. “But, it’s hockey. We like it. It’s part of the game.”
After the first period, the Aggies were down 2-1, but during the intermission senior night raised the Aggie Spirit. The graduating seniors, Gary Russell, Christian Spear, Taylor Pennell, Brandon Steele, Hutson Svondrk and Greer were called onto a red carpet on the ice with their parents.
“It’s kind of bittersweet,” said Greer, who has been playing for 20 years with two and half years spent at A&M. “It’s sad that it’s my last home game, but I've made a ton of memories with this team.”
Winning the conference championship again is a goal for the team, Russell said, but there is also a second objective.
“Our goal every year is to beat every single team in Texas and not lose a single game to a Texas team,” said Russell.
Both Russell and Greer are graduating in May and said the team was like a family. Norwood added this specific group of guys had a huge influence on the A&M ice hockey program and will be difficult to replace.
“It’s going to come down to us continuing it next year,” Norwood said.