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It's an argument that would undoubtedly please those who worry that athletics have superseded academics on American college campuses, but it doesn't make the team's decision any less curious.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."