Ice hockey may be LMU’s best-kept secret. So well-kept, in fact, that many people don’t even know the University has a team. But for those who do, such as the loyal crowd who made the trek out to Harbor City on Oct. 30, there’s a lot to love.
The Skating Edge Ice Arena, LMU club hockey’s home ice, is an intimate setting that allows for a closer look at the game than would usually be possible at an NHL game — and for a fraction of the cost. Fans state that they love coming to games because you can see how much passion the team has for the sport.
The way the team is playing this year doesn’t hurt either: the Lions swept to an 11-1 victory over Cal State Fullerton on Saturday and now boast an 8-1-1 record on the year. That level of play isn’t a surprise for the team, which has had plenty of success in recent years. But even with a history of success, the team continues to improve, looking to keep the momentum going while on track to achieve the best record in program history.
In short, things are clicking for the team. Goalie Jason Footlick noted that a major aspect of their success has been an improved team culture.
“This year is different than other years that I’ve played here in the sense that everyone on the team is bought in," he said. "Everyone believes in each other, everyone supports each other. I’ve been on a lot of teams that have more skill than this team, but couldn’t succeed because of internal problems in the locker room, like communication and leadership. I think this year there’s no question about our leadership, or with any of the guys on the team. They all buy in, they all work hard and I think that’s what it takes to have a winning team. It’s not just skill.”
Footlick, who graduated last year with a degree in accounting and is now pursuing a master's degree in business administration, thought that the 2020-2021 season would be his final shot at playing competitive hockey before the season was canceled due to COVID-19. Being able to come back this year has allowed him to solidify his place in the history books by becoming the winningest goalie in program history — taking 26 wins in only 41 games. This season, he is 6-0-1 while in goal. His opinion on team culture was reflected by the team captain, senior forward Austin Billings.
“We’re extremely optimistic. I think we have the best culture now of my four years being here. I think everyone is very bought in, and we’re skating for the guys next to us, not for ourselves,” Billings said.
Even after being apart due to missing all of last season, the team hasn’t missed a beat now that they’re back. Both Footlick and Billings noted that the team spends time together even when they’re not at the rink, whether that’s hanging at team members’ off-campus houses or getting food at the Lair. The team simply wants to be together. Alternate captain Thomas Bennett even took a leave of absence last year in order to come back now and continue playing.
Additionally, the team has strong leadership from the top down. More than half of the team are upperclassmen, and that responsibility isn’t lost on them.
“I think it’s a great reality check.” said Billings. “Everything I do, someone’s watching ... that’s on the ice, off the ice, on campus. It’s going to be noticed what we do, so it very much makes us take a step back and realize, 'Hey, we’re being watched, so we need to treat others how we want to be treated.'”
While leadership from older players has certainly made a difference, the hope is that younger players carry on the momentum and keep the tradition alive for the next generation after them. The future looks to be in good hands, especially those of freshman goalie Steven Fitzer, who starts his LMU career with a 1-0 record, and freshman forward Connor Kaczmarek, who scored a hat trick in a single period on Saturday night.
“We’re on a four game winning streak right now, so now we know what it takes to win. We were just trying to ride it out as long as we could,” Kaczmarek said after the game. “The boys are just gelling now. It’s a great opportunity.”
LMU stands at the top of the West Coast Hockey Conference standings and has aspirations of making — and winning — the American Collegiate Hockey Association championship. The end goal is to have the program promoted to an NCAA Division I level, on par with the rest of LMU’s varsity athletics. Southern California's hockey presence is noticeably muted compared to other major sports, and players and team staff believe that the time for an NCAA program may be right.
“Obviously, the ultimate goal is to make this an NCAA Division I program on campus. We want to build a rink in Hannon parking lot, and I think that would thrive,” Tyler Goeckner-Zoeller, the current general manager and LMU hockey alumnus, shared with a laugh. “But until someone who loves hockey at LMU wins the lottery, I think we’ll just be doing our thing and trying to be the best team in California every year.”