The hockey fans at Tucson Convention Center are getting what they've come to expect. The University of Arizona Icecats look like they're about to administer their umpteenth butt-kicking to the Arizona State Ice Devils.
On this February night, Arizona quickly jumps to a 2-0 lead in the first period, and the crowd of 6,000 reaches a simultaneous emotional orgasm. As the house organ plays snatches of "The Mexican Hat Dance" and "Old McDonald Had a Farm," Icecats fans diligently wait for musical pauses to shriek "You suck" to the Ice Devils stickmen.
For the Arizona State Ice Devils, it's the same old song. Over the two decades that ASU and Arizona have battled on the ice, Arizona's domination has been so complete, it's felt like punishment from the hockey gods of the Great White North for some unknown sin.
This season, Arizona won three of its first four meetings with Arizona State, with ASU able to manage no better than a tie in the other contest. In at least two games, ASU inexplicably threw away solid leads in the third period.
Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
TicketsTue., Aug. 29, 6:40pm
All You Can Eat Value Pack - Mercury v Sun
TicketsFri., Sep. 1, 7:00pm
Phoenix Rising Football Club vs. Seattle Sounders 2
TicketsSat., Sep. 2, 7:30pm
All You Can Eat Value Pack - Mercury v Dream
TicketsSun., Sep. 3, 1:00pm
Phoenix Mercury vs. Atlanta Dream
TicketsSun., Sep. 3, 1:00pm
But ASU isn't rolling over so easily tonight. Late in the first period, the Ice Devils roar back with an impressive stretch of deft puck handling. In less than eight minutes, the team scores three unanswered goals. By the end of the second period, the Ice Devils have expanded that lead to 4-2. The players march to the locker room for the final intermission, mumbling to themselves that they still have 20 minutes left to go.
ASU first-year head coach Mickey Volcan is dressed in a smart black-and-gray suit. He carries a yellow legal pad, loaded with notes about player substitutions. In the locker room, he stays out of the players' way, except to tell them, "Look at how [the Icecats] are playing. It's wide open, so you have to be disciplined."
Ian Smith, a tall, chatty right winger from Detroit, sits on the locker-room bench and hurls exhortations like smoke bombs, at no one in particular. "We've got 'em where we want 'em," he says. "Let's shove it up their asses."
In the third period, the Ice Devils withstand repeated charges from Arizona, but with seven minutes gone in the period, penalties put ASU at a crippling disadvantage: the Ice Devils have to play with only three players, while UA has five.
With 5:41 remaining, UA is within a single goal at 4-3, and ASU's Jeffrey Tarala gets two minutes in the penalty box for tripping.
"Nice way to end your career, you fuckin' faggot," shouts Arizona's mammoth center Hunter Cherenack, from his team's bench.
The ASU bench is controlled chaos. Volcan unpredictably shifts emotional gears, one minute smiling at a toddler in the front row, the next minute spitting out profanities and making hand-job gestures to Arizona assistant coach Jeremy Goltz. The two coaches exchange rink pleasantries: "You're a fucking asshole." "No, you're a fucking asshole."
Volcan takes out a wad of cash and waves it at the UA bench, as if to ask, "How much are you paying the refs?"
With 1:05 left in the game, UA breaks through with a goal; the score is tied at 4-4. The air goes out of the ASU bench. Once again, it looks like the team is finding a way to let victory over Arizona slip away.
The stands are still vibrating with giddiness, when ASU's Tarala fires a pass to an open Ian Smith. With 47 seconds left in the game, Smith flicks a smoking slap shot into the Arizona net. The crowd swiftly becomes quiet as a morgue, but ASU players are shouting and hugging, and a red-faced Volcan jumps on the bench and pumps his fist at a heckler in the crowd.
In the closing seconds, ASU adds an empty-net insurance goal that brings the final tally to 6-4. For only the second time in 24 games this season, the Icecats have been beaten. In front of their home crowd, no less.
In the locker room, Volcan high-fives every player in sight and spews out a gusher of superlatives: "Fucking good show, fucking congratulations! You fucking deserved it, you fucking deserved it!" The players roar with exultation.
On this night, the Arizona State Ice Devils look like the epitome of a great college hockey team. They are tough, tenacious, quick and well-coached. They look like the kind of unified, determined bunch that will accept nothing short of victory.
So why, only two weeks before this game, did this same Ice Devils team turn down a prestigious invitation to the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) playoffs in Minot, North Dakota? The Ice Devils were one of only 12 teams in the country invited to the nationals. It would have been only the third time in the team's 21-year history that it had made it to the playoffs. And this year arguably signified its best-ever chance at a national championship.
Despite a late-season tailspin, the Ice Devils were ranked ninth in the nation, and they'd proven their mettle with strong road performances against Delaware, Iowa State and Minot State. These guys knew that on a good night they could compete with any team in the country.
Volcan was ebullient when the ACHA invitation came in. A feisty, power-skating demon from the hockey incubator of Edmonton, Alberta, Volcan has lived for little but hockey in his 38 years. He hung out as a kid with future NHL superstars Grant Fuhr and Mark Messier, even dating Messier's sister for several years. As a 17-year-old freshman at the University of North Dakota, he'd been one of the youngest athletes ever to win an NCAA championship ring in a team sport. Volcan knew how much the playoffs represented, and he couldn't wait to take his team.
But on February 4, one day after the ACHA invitation arrived, Volcan's players voted not to make the trip to Minot. On the surface, it was a hard decision to comprehend.
The players said it was just too expensive and impractical to make the trip. The Ice Devils -- like the Arizona Icecats -- are a "club hockey" team, meaning they are not part of the university's varsity athletic program. Players do not receive athletic scholarships. The team is an independent, nonprofit organization that must provide its own funding.
On January 8, the team's sole financial backer, Scottsdale businessman Alan Gagleard, abruptly pulled out of his commitment to cover the team's $100,000 budget for this season. From that point on, the team fell into disarray. Players were left with two options for making it to Minot: Fork over about $500 each to fly, or $200 each for a lengthy and wearisome bus ride. To the players, it was a lose-lose situation.
"For a lot of guys, it just wasn't worth it to pay all that money," says Nils Satterstrom, one of the team's leading scorers, and a senior majoring in landscape architecture. "Or, our other option was to sit on a bus for 30-some hours. School comes first. I know I was disappointed. But, at the same time, we can't neglect school."
It's an argument that would undoubtedly please those who worry that athletics have superseded academics on American college campuses, but it doesn't make the team's decision any less curious. Many club hockey teams require their players to pay annual dues of up to $600. The Ice Devils had only chipped in about $80 this season, and the bus ride would be a relatively small expense, considering the reward that comes with the ACHA playoffs.
Besides, what kind of team passes on a chance to play for the national championship? Try imagining a college basketball team turning down the NCAA Final Four because the tournament conflicted with midterms. Or an NFL conference champion backing out of the Super Bowl because the players didn't feel like being away from home for a week.
Volcan doesn't buy the academic argument, calling it "a poor excuse, because they all knew about the school part of it at the beginning."
The players won't admit it, but Volcan suspects that they turned down the playoffs as a way of rebelling against his frequently abrasive coaching methods. "They shit on me, let me tell you," he says. "You don't do that to a winner."
Volcan doesn't apologize for his demanding ways, and the thought of a passive-aggressive player mutiny only makes him defiant: "This program's been Mickey Mouse for so long, the inmates have been running the prison. But that's changing."
Most ACHA players probably dream of playing in the NCAA, but Nils Satterstrom voluntarily gave up a scholarship at a respected NCAA program to play for ASU.
The 24-year-old senior from Vail, Colorado, enrolled at the University of Maine in 1995. Satterstrom had been a hockey obsessive since he was a kid, and Maine's powerhouse team seemed like a perfect fit. But the program might have been too strong for Satterstrom.
Like many of ASU's best players, he's a quick skater hampered only by a lack of size. At 5-9, 170 pounds, he's just too small to match up with the NCAA's best. In his first two years at Maine, he played in a mere 16 games and scored only one goal. Halfway through his third year, he decided to leave the school.
"I was fourth or fifth line at Maine, so I didn't see a whole lot of playing time," he says. "I just got sick of hockey for a while, so I came out here. I came to ASU, at first just to go to school, and then found out about the hockey team in my second semester, and then decided I just wanted to play for fun."
Satterstrom is typical of ASU's standout players, several of whom had devoted their entire lives to hockey before reaching a burnout phase. ASU provided a hockey sanctuary where the game was played for pure enjoyment, not for a scholarship or to impress professional hockey scouts.
The soft-spoken Satterstrom was the Ice Devils' leading scorer and Most Valuable Player for the 1998-99 season, and this year he tied Ian Smith for the team lead in points, with 41. Though the hockey prestige factor is lower at ASU than at Maine, Satterstrom says he feels more comfortable with the Ice Devils experience than in the rarefied air of NCAA hockey.
"You've got guys here who really want to play, and it's for fun," Satterstrom says. "I think when you're on scholarship, it's a lot more businesslike. It's more like a job. A lot of times, you're putting 40 hours a week into it, on top of your classes."
Much like Satterstrom, left winger Matt Barclay is a lifelong hockey zealot who took his shot at NCAA hockey and wound up disillusioned. A naturally combative force on the ice, in conversation Barclay conveys a detached sense of cool, like James Dean on skates. Although he's one of only five Phoenix natives on the team (his younger brother Mike is another), Barclay has probably taken the most convoluted path to the Ice Devils hockey team.
As a 5-year-old, he brought home a flier that invited kids to join "Desert Hockey," a series of youth-hockey lessons offered at Metrocenter. Barclay's dad, John, a justice of the peace and hockey devotee who moved to the Valley from Chicago, saw the flier and decided to take his son. Little brother Mike watched from the sidelines for three years until he was old enough to play.
In his sophomore year at Brophy High School, Matt was recruited by the hockey coach at Shattuck St. Mary's, a Minnesota prep school best known as one of the supreme hockey factories in the United States.
Halfway through his senior year, he chose to play junior hockey at Kalamazoo, Michigan. The next year he was traded to Indianapolis, where he finished high school.
He took a year off before enrolling in St. Mary's University in Minnesota.
"I was kind of burned out by then," he recalls. "Plus, I'd had a third-degree sprain on my ankle and fractured my fibula right before playoffs in Indianapolis, so I couldn't skate all summer and I was out of shape."
Many of his old Shattuck buddies were playing at the University of Minnesota-Crookston, an NCAA school, so he transferred there. Like Satterstrom, Barclay is undersized for hockey, at 5-9, 180 pounds. As a result, in two years at Crookston, he saw little playing time. He decided to transfer to ASU to play for his old youth instructor, Gene Hammett, the popular coach who preceded Volcan.
It wasn't the NCAA, but it was a chance to pay in-state tuition, get back to a sunny climate, and reconnect with old friends he hadn't seen much since high school.
Matt's brother Mike followed him to Shattuck. Mike struggled with his grades there and saw little varsity playing time, so he decided to transfer to Notre Dame High School in Saskatchewan, Canada, another vaunted hockey factory.
"It's just corn fields, and you freeze your ass off," Matt says. "There's nothing to do but drink beer and play hockey."
For his third year of high school, Mike lived in Austria with a family his dad had befriended as coach of a touring youth-hockey team. For simply sitting in classes and trying to pick up the language, Mike received a year of high school credit. The experience took well enough that Mike is now a German major at ASU.
Senior center Paul Goff faces an even greater size handicap than Satterstrom or the Barclay brothers. At 5-7, 155 pounds, he's the smallest starter on the ASU squad.
A native of Pickney, Michigan, Goff played three years of junior hockey, while mulling over his college options. He had scholarship offers from a couple of small Division II and Division III schools. But he kept thinking about a visit he'd made to Tempe the summer after his high school graduation. He liked what he'd seen of ASU, and he was surprised to learn that it had a hockey team.
Like Satterstrom, Goff is a quiet, low-key leader, and one of the few players on the team whose work ethic meets with Volcan's approval. Both players are in their mid-20s and they're both mature enough to view their Ice Devils playing time as a fun way to end their careers, but not a life-or-death experience. On a squad characterized by its boisterousness, they seem to provide the emotional rudder.
After Goff graduates this spring with a degree in political science, he'll join the Air Force. He's always dreamed of being a pilot, and has been accepted in the Air Force's flight program.
When he talks about playing for the Ice Devils, he most often raves about the camaraderie that's made this hockey experience more enjoyable than his previous ones.
"I've never been on a team that got along as well as this team," Goff says. "It's amazing. One of the best things about this team is that you gain 25 friends that you'll probably have forever. We always hang out together and see each other everywhere we go.
"They're definitely serious about winning. It's not like a Division I program where you're in the weight room three hours a day and you're on the ice two hours a day. But the guys are proud and they want to win."
Maybe so, but that commitment did not extend to paying their own way to Minot. One would imagine that the team vote was a contentious affair, but players say the team was solidly in agreement that it was not financially feasible to go to the playoffs. They tend to frame the issue as an opportunity that was ripped away from them, rather than a decision that they chose to make. They blame Gagleard, saying he took away their chance at a championship season when he withdrew his sponsorship.
"That killed everything," Matt Barclay says of Gagleard's pullout. "We would have had a real good chance at nationals, too."
Despite Barclay's confidence in his team's chances, a few players hint that the team was unlikely to go far in the tournament -- although they were guaranteed at least two games -- and that the trip would have been a waste. It's the kind of defeatist attitude that makes Volcan talk about the need to bring a different type of player to ASU, one who isn't content to sit around contemplating his jockstrap while his rivals go to the nationals.
Only seven of ASU's 26 players are seniors, but one senses that only a few of the underclassmen will be asked back next season by Volcan. He's ready to build a new kind of team.
Mickey Volcan works out every morning, because he feels that he has to be in shape to drive his players harder. He wants to show them that he can do everything on the ice that he asks them to do. He knows that his hard-nosed, blustery methods have alienated some of his players, but he cares only about winning, not popularity.
Ask Matt Barclay about the differences between playing for Volcan and his predecessor, Gene Hammett, and Barclay hesitates for a few seconds. "Hmm, that's a sensitive area," Barclay says.
The 25-year-old Barclay has a unique perspective on the two coaches. As a kid, he received hockey instruction from Hammett, and his friendship with the coach was instrumental in convincing Barclay to transfer to ASU from Crookston in 1996. He played two seasons for Hammett, took a year off from hockey, and returned to play for Volcan this season.
"Gene Hammett could relate more to the players," Barclay finally allows. "He was one of the guys. No one could really say that Mickey is one of the guys. He might want to think he is, but he never got down to the players' level. He was the coach, you were the player, whatever he said went, and he didn't have to explain himself.
"Gene Hammett was a total personable guy, you could talk to him anytime. He'd drink beers with the guys, he'd tell stories. And he was a positive coach, too. He wasn't one who'd yell all the time. And sometimes he got ripped on because some people thought he was too laid-back, but I'd rather have the coach who's more positive on the bench than one who yells at the players."
In his nine years as coach, Hammett did much to elevate the ASU program to respectability. The team earned back-to-back playoff bids in 1996 and 1997, and would have made a third straight trip to the nationals in 1998 if it hadn't been disqualified for using a Mesa Community College student who was not enrolled at ASU.
But Hammett recognized that there were limits to how far he'd be able to take the hockey program, so he stepped aside last season. Alan Gagleard took over as general manager last summer, promising to bring money and a high-octane winning mentality to the program.
Gagleard is an attorney and businessman who founded the Power P.E.O. (Professional Employer Organization) in 1998. The company handles a variety of services for businesses, including payroll, health plans and taxes. Gagleard grew up in Detroit, an avid childhood fan of the Detroit Red Wings. Since moving to Phoenix in 1986, he's tried to raise the profile of hockey in the Valley. He was a founder and part-owner of the Phoenix Mustangs, a minor league team in the West Coast Hockey League.
Volcan, a four-year veteran of the NHL, had played for the Mustangs in recent years. Gagleard had seen Volcan's competitive fire up close, and he wanted him onboard with ASU. One of his first moves as Ice Devils general manager was to hire Volcan as director of hockey operations. Volcan didn't intend to coach, but he says he couldn't find anyone else who fit the bill, so he hired himself.
As proof of his seriousness, he put together a strong coaching staff that included former Coyotes head coach Jim Schoenfeld. Schoenfeld, who was fired by the Coyotes last May after two years, agreed to help Volcan organize practices and plan a schedule for the team.
"Jim and I played against each other for many years when he was with Buffalo and I was with Hartford and Calgary," Volcan says. "So we had a mutual friendship, and that developed over the last few years when he was coaching the Coyotes. I knew if there was an opportunity for him to coach in the NHL, he was going to jump on it. But he said he'd like to come out to practices. And he was there at 75 percent of the practices. And that lifted that intensity level right up.
"Talk about a mentor? I was the luckiest coach in North America."
At 6 feet, 190 pounds, Volcan is small only by the standards of the NHL, where he was frequently a David being cross-checked by Goliaths. Yet he appears to be shorter than he really is. He conveys the impression of a stocky, pugnacious little guy who'd sooner give up a pound of flesh than let anyone get the puck past him.
His compact frame is muscular enough to make you think he could still cut it at the professional level. He has brown wavy hair, dark, penetrating eyes and a set of matching "hockey teeth." That is, his teeth are so perfect -- absolutely straight and blindingly white -- that you're instantly aware that they're fake. Sure enough, Volcan volunteers that he once took a slap shot to the mouth and had his front teeth pushed back to his jaw. He says the resulting five and a half hours of oral surgery were much more painful than the broken legs and dislocated shoulders he endured during his playing career.
Volcan's dad, Mike, played for 10 years in the Canadian Football League. He was an all-star defensive tackle and won two Grey Cups, the Canadian equivalent of a Super Bowl title.
Despite his father's inspiring example, Volcan -- the middle child of three -- always had his sights set on the ice rink, not the gridiron. Even at the elementary-school level, competition in Edmonton was always intense. He says at least 10 of his closest childhood friends ended up joining him in professional hockey.
Volcan was something of a skating prodigy. In 1972, at the age of 10, he traveled to Czechoslovakia as part of one of the first amateur teams from the West ever to cross the Iron Curtain. At 17, he was a starter on the University of North Dakota's national-championship team. The following year he was drafted in the third round by the Hartford Whalers. When he joined the team at the beginning of the 1980-81 season, he was the youngest player in the NHL.
"Looking back on it, I was too young," he says. "On the ice was all right. Off the ice, the publicity and all that, I didn't have any experience with that. Or with having $100 in my pocket."
Volcan came along when a new breed of offensive-minded defenseman was entering the NHL. A decade earlier, the Boston Bruins' Bobby Orr had redefined the position -- which had previously entailed hanging around behind your team's blue line and stifling opposing threats -- by bringing a scorer's sensibility to it. Orr was way ahead of his time, but by the early '80s, Orr disciples like Paul Coffey were able to permanently change the defenseman's role on the ice.
Volcan was no Coffey, but he was a fairly skilled passer and skater. In three seasons with the Whalers, and one with the Calgary Flames, he played in 162 games, scoring 41 points on eight goals and 33 assists. But most of all, Volcan took pride in his ability to inflict damage on bigger men.
"One of the compliments I took came from Mark Messier when I was 18 with the Whalers," he says. "He told the guys on his team, 'Watch Mickey Volcan, 'cause he'll hit you in open ice.' I had very good timing and anticipation. I didn't care who you were, if you had your head down and I had a chance to put you in the third row, I would do it.
"I caught Wayne Gretzky that night. Granted, I had to fight three guys on his team right after that. But Wayne to this day will remember that check. He fell flat on his ass."
After four seasons in the NHL, Volcan's playing career started to peter out. He drifted through the minor league ranks, played for a while in Vienna, Austria, and was a part of the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle. Later that year, the Los Angeles Kings signed him to a minor league contract. This was Volcan's last shot at making it back to the big time.
His minor league assignment was with the now-defunct Phoenix Roadrunners. Volcan never got called up by the Kings, but he was smitten with the Valley. He ended up staying -- teaching skating classes, lecturing kids about drugs and gangs, and rounding out his playing career with the Mustangs.
Volcan receives no pay for coaching at ASU, so he makes a living teaching power-skating every morning at the Cellular One Ice Den in Scottsdale. For the past several months, he's worked a grueling schedule -- he teaches skating from 5:30 to 9 a.m., spends a couple hours working out, then attends to his ASU hockey duties until about 5:30 in the afternoon.
Volcan quickly established a ferocity level with his team that took many players aback. He wanted his players to push themselves, and he didn't mind yelling at them to get his point across.
While players concede that Volcan was more knowledgeable about hockey systems than Hammett, some believe that he wasn't so adept at communicating his knowledge to the team.
"He couldn't put the chemistry together," Matt Barclay says of Volcan. "One of the players on the team said it perfectly: 'You can't do that unless you really know the players, and he really didn't know us.'"
Nonetheless, Volcan's brand of tough love seemed to be effective in the first half of the season. Playing a rugged schedule -- with 15 of 25 games against Top 10 teams -- ASU built up an impressive early mark of 11 wins, 2 losses and 2 ties. At Minot State last November, it pulled off an amazing comeback, overcoming a 4-1 deficit with 90 seconds left in the game to send the game into overtime, finally winning 5-4. Volcan calls it one of the most memorable games he's ever seen.
But in mid-January of this year, almost immediately after Gagleard withdrew his financial support, the Ice Devils began to cave in. It didn't help that one of the team's best players, center Austin Messer, had to quit when he flunked out after the fall semester.
On January 12, four days after Gagleard's announcement, the Ice Devils dropped a 7-3 decision to Penn State. Beginning with that game, the team lost six of its next 10 contests, winning only three, and tying one.
Gagleard caused similar upheaval this season with the Phoenix Mustangs, abruptly pulling out as an owner of the team. "He did it to the Mustangs, too, so I don't take it personally," Volcan says with a laugh. (A Mustangs spokesman confirms that Gagleard severed his ties with the team, but refuses to elaborate on the situation.)
Gagleard did not respond to New Times' repeated requests for an interview, but Volcan says the Scottsdale businessman should not be criticized for his decision. Volcan says the Ice Devils mistakenly assumed that Gagleard would take care of everything, and that the team didn't have to raise money from outside sources. He says Gagleard had never expected to sink so much of his own cash into the venture.
A by-product of Gagleard's withdrawal was that the team lost its assigned practice time at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum, which Gagleard had paid for. The team had to practice an hour earlier every day, which conflicted with classes for some players. At some practices in the second half of the season, Volcan had only half the players attending.
"It looked like we were going to take a big stride forward, but once our sponsor backed out, it turned into the same old thing," says Satterstrom. "It was a big downer. We were definitely looking forward to playing in the nationals, and once they started putting more pressure on us, on top of school, we started getting stressed."
At one time, Arizona had such a superiority in hockey talent over Arizona State, the Ice Devils couldn't hope to compete. In the mid-'90s, the Icecats held a 65-game winning streak over the Ice Devils. In recent years, ASU's talent level began to approach Arizona's, but bad luck seemed to hound the Ice Devils at every turn.
In 1998, ASU won four games over a freshman-laden Arizona team, but ASU was ultimately required to forfeit all its victories that season because of its ineligible player. When the Ice Devils lost their slot in the American Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs that year, Arizona took their place.
These days, the easiest way to measure the gap between the hockey programs of ASU and UA is to contrast the kind of crowds they draw. It's where Arizona's superiority truly reveals itself. In the Valley, going to see Arizona State play hockey is a fringe diversion reserved for college-age hockey hooligans looking for an offbeat way to stir things up on a weekend night. The Ice Devils attract only 500 fans per game, a number that looks especially paltry compared to the 5,000 that Arizona routinely averages.
A case in point is the Ice Devils' home finale against UA. For this February 5 game, the Ice Devils draw an uncharacteristically large crowd of nearly 1,000, but Veterans' Memorial Coliseum still looks empty. The Icecats seem to have as many fans in attendance as the Ice Devils.
The Ice Devils enter the rink to scattered applause, as the funereal tolling of AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" pumps out of the arena's tinny speakers. Before the game, the public address announcer, in his best Don Pardo voice, intones: "There will be no national anthem tonight." The crowd laughs.
Once the game starts, ASU supporters compensate for their small numbers with manic misbehavior. Every time an Icecat skates by, ASU fans in the front row pound on the Plexiglas wall with such vehemence that it looks like the wall will come crashing down at any moment. When Arizona goalie Mark Meister doubles over in pain after absorbing a blistering series of shots on goal, a group of ASU diehards in matching yellow jerseys yells, "You pussy!" When the Icecats jump to a first-period lead, an Arizona State fan loudly derides UA as "Tucson Tech."
If Arizona State home games are a fringe pursuit for the Valley's puck-obsessed, a UA home game is the hip ticket in Tucson on weekends. You see the demographic gamut of Tucson at these games: middle-aged couples, blue-haired retirees, high school alterna-kids and pintsize skating aspirants. Together, they're a thunderous, intensely loyal lot who know everything about their team's coaches and players.
Their big hero is Leo Golembiewski, the gray-haired, droopy-eyed coach who looks like a puffier, more pompous Newt Gingrich, if such a thing is possible. Golembiewski formed the Icecats 21 years ago, and he's the only head coach they've ever had. He has the kind of haughty demeanor that suggests his ego long ago became too big for the Icecats' "club hockey" designation. When told that his program is held up as a model for other ACHA hockey programs -- a 1999 Seattle Times piece, for instance, suggested that the University of Washington's hockey team should follow the Icecats' example -- he firmly inflates the plaudit to be "a model for all college hockey teams."
When asked for the secret to UA's hockey success, he responds: "The school doesn't have any secret to it. We came here in 1979 with the dream of building a team with American-born hockey players. We invented the word Icecat. What the school has gained from it is the number-three draw at this institution. We've got no funding from the university. We never have. It's been all the hard work from our staff, small as it may be."
Golembiewski is quick to remind people that when he started the team, the Icecats had to play home games in Tempe. Since then, he's built a fan and advertising base so strong that the team is always generously funded, even with no backing from the university. He's so popular in Tucson that he even has his own radio show.
The success of Arizona's hockey program would seem to merit a jump to the NCAA level, but Golembiewski doubts that such a move is on the horizon. The biggest stumbling block for both UA and ASU is Title IX, the 1972 civil rights law barring sex discrimination in education.
Title IX has often been used as a litigation tool to enforce equal opportunities for athletic scholarships on college campuses. Many universities are so fearful of court-imposed punishments that they'll ax men's sports programs simply to narrow the gap between male and female scholarships. No matter how much income Arizona's hockey team generates, the university simply doesn't have room for any more male scholarships.
"When you talk about NCAA Division I, you're talking about Title IX -- gender equality," Golembiewski says. "Last I heard, we had 103 more male athletes than female athletes on campus. So, it's politics."
If the NCAA isn't in the Icecats' immediate future, Golembiewski seems more than satisfied with his position of power in the ACHA. In fact, Golembiewski's detractors hint that he's got the entire ACHA in his back pocket. They also moan that he butters up the referees, and that his teams always seem to get more than their share of the calls.
Maybe it's pure jealousy of Golembiewski's record -- which includes more than 400 wins, 18 straight playoff appearances and a 1985 national championship -- but Volcan and his team argue that the refs in Tucson always find a way to ensure an Icecat win. He also credits player talent, not coaching skill, with Golembiewski's success.
"I don't respect Leo's record as a coach at all," Volcan says. "Leo's not liked, even by his own players. They don't like playing for him."
Volcan's antipathy for Golembiewski reaches a peak during ASU's regular-season finale on Saturday, February 19. It's Fan Night for the Icecats. Before the game, Golembiewski takes center-ice and thanks the fans for their support. He also singles out the referees for thanks, a gesture that Volcan considers inappropriate.
Once again, the Ice Devils fall behind early in the game, and once again they battle back. Early in the third period, Arizona widens its lead to 5-2, and the game looks like a done deal, but ASU quickly cuts the lead to 5-4. With 8:35 left in the game, Matt Barclay and Arizona left wing Ed Carfora -- described by Barclay as "the biggest cheap-shot artist on their team" -- start slugging each other after Carfora clubs Barclay in the neck.
"One of our guys hit him," Barclay says. "I've been watching him cheap-shot our guys all year, and it was really pissing me off. So I skated by to tell him that this wasn't going to be the last hit of the game on him. Before I got two words out, I got speared. I blocked it a bit with my chin, but as soon as I did that, I went at him and he went at me, and that was all she wrote."
The brawl unleashes all the nastiness that simmers beneath the surface of this rivalry. The rest of the game is an unbroken series of fights, with players on both sides trying to get retribution for a teammate. Matt Barclay's brother Mike joins in the fisticuffs parade, apparently eager to even the score for his sibling. By the time the game ends, with Arizona winning 6-4, seven players have been ousted from the contest. Enraged that Carfora did not earn a game disqualification for spearing Matt Barclay, Volcan verbally unloads on the refs, and is also ejected.
As 6,000 boo birds at Tucson Convention Center rain verbal abuse on Volcan, he saunters off the ice with his head up and a faint smirk on his face.
But Volcan is too much of a hockey fanatic; he can't sit in the locker room for long. Moments later, he's standing in the wings on tiptoes, anxiously watching the action, in open defiance of his ejection. Hundreds of Tucson fans start yelling at Volcan to go back to the locker room, chanting "Get Out" and "Hit the Road, Mickey." He ignores them.
Moments later, two security men take Volcan's arms and cart him off. He doesn't resist.
The defeat and his ejection should have Volcan in a foul mood, but after the game he's beaming like a proud parent. His guys may have lost, but they certainly didn't lack for grit, or, at the very least, belligerence.
Volcan gathers his team around him in the crowded, stench-filled locker room and says, "Hell of a job out there. Way to fucking stick together. This has been a great fucking experience for me. You all can play for me anytime."
There's more than a little bullshit in this rah-rah speech. Even if he's proud of tonight's effort, Volcan's abiding memory of this team will be laced with disappointment. Truth is, he doesn't believe that more than a handful of these players could play for him anytime.
Outside the locker room, parents and friends wait to congratulate the tired team. Players trudge out, with heavy backpacks on their shoulders. Paul Goff's dad is here, having made the trip from California. The Barclays' parents are here, offering greetings to various players and helping them collect their gear.
You might mistake this atmosphere for a post-playoff-game catharsis, where the stakes are high and the players leave every ounce of stamina and emotion on the ice.
But there will be no playoff games for the Arizona State Ice Devils. This will have to do.
Contact Gilbert Garcia at his online address: email@example.com
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.