Collegiate ice hockey may not be as popular in Oklahoma as football or basketball, but the University of Central Oklahoma's club team is finding its own rabid followings among sports lovers, partially thanks to an increasingly bitter rivalry with the University of Oklahoma.
With a Sept. 26 third-season opener against St. Louis University, the UCO Bronchos have watched their crowds blossom to an average attendance of 700, according to Steve Gordon, the team's general manager. He said he expects the crowds to continue growing, thanks to a new rink inside Edmond's Arctic Edge Ice Arena and a strong showing last season in the American Collegiate Hockey Association Division 1.
Despite the success, the university maintains only a loose relationship with the team, meaning the team receives no financial support, but "an adminstrative pat on the back "¦ which means a lot to us," said Craig McAlister, head coach.
Even if becoming a varsity sport isn't an immediate possibility, team officials and players are optimistic that by continuing to win the hearts of the UCO student body, university officials might warm to the idea of strengthening its ties to the Bronchos.
"What we need to do is establish the fan base, and that might lead the administration another direction," McAlister said. "Right now, they don't need us trying to put pressure on them. If you do a good enough job, things will happen."
Team captain AJ Alfrey said he is confident the Bronchos will improve on their ranking this year.
"We have one of the toughest schedules in the ACHA. We are playing the top 11 teams in the nation," Alfrey said. "Our goal for the season is definitely to make the national tournament, because once you're there, you never know what's going to happen."
NEW PROGRAM'S START
McAlister wanted to bring in a group of players already familiar with each other to start the new program. Alfrey and assistant team captain Mike Glowa were both members of junior league hockey team the Chicago Force when McAlister came knocking. He convinced the two and a handful of other teammates and Illinois natives to enroll at UCO in order to start the new program.
"It's really exciting to be a part of it," Glowa said. "When we were getting recruited, we realized just how exciting and fun it would be to start up an organization and be able to say, 'We were the ones that started that.'"
The rapid growth of the fan base is part of the reason the second rink was built at Arctic Edge. It currently seats about 1,600 fans, and was designed to enhance the immediacy of live hockey.
"When the place fills up, you are looking right over our shoulders," Glowa said. "You get a real good feel for just how fast the game really is, and I don't think most people really understand that until they see a game live."
Having the fans so close to the ice has added to the rabid rivalry brewing between UCO and OU, Gordon said. During a game last season, one of the OU players scored a goal, and then climbed the glass and taunted the fans.
"These kids just do not like each other, and you can tell as soon as they step out of the locker room," said Gordon. "They just want to get after each other."
OU will face off against UCO on Nov. 14 and Feb. 14, 2009, on the Bronchos' home turf.
"They are definitely our most intense games," Glowa said. "Our goal is to climb the rankings so we can get ahead of them. You just want to beat them " just beat them into the ground." "Charles Martin