Consider yourself a collegiate sports fan who is tired of slogging your way through the winter doldrums caused by Illini men’s basketball? Well, here’s a pick-me-up worth your time: Beginning Friday, Feb. 15, the University of Illinois is hosting the Central States Collegiate Hockey League playoffs. The tournament features the undefeated Illini men’s team (29–0, 18–0 in league play) and several other powerhouses, if not household names, in Lindenwood University (had to look it up), Eastern and Western Michigan universities, and Kent State University.
The Fighting Illini, a Division I club hockey team that’s ranked No. 1 nationally in the American Collegiate Hockey Association, became the first CSCHL team in nearly two decades to finish league play undefeated. As CSCHL regular season champs, the Illini already have an automatic bid in the ACHA national tourney held in early March, although their seeding is still to be determined.
Mouthfuls of acronyms aside, my current knowledge about hockey can be summed up in a seven-word vocabulary pack: goal, puck, stick, ice, skates, fight, Gretzky. So for more elaboration on what makes a collegiate hockey game at the University of Illinois Ice Arena a worthwhile endeavor, I turned to a 10-year-old. Will Gerard, a fifth grader at Champaign’s South Side Elementary, is an avid Illini hockey fan who warns of a potential clash in the CSCHL tourney between Illinois and either Lindenwood or Ohio University. Sure enough, his opinion is echoed by freshman Illini defenseman Zach Honert.
Lindenwood, a liberal arts school from St. Charles, Mo., played the Illini tough in three games this season, allowing the Orange and Blue a one-point margin of victory in each contest. The Illini handled rival Ohio University in a pair of matches in late January. Iowa State also played Illinois tough in a pair of overtime games this season, and is the returning CSCHL tourney champs. The Illini, led by sophomore goalie Mike Burda, the pride of the Stevenson High School Patriots (Buffalo Grove, Ill.), have held down the ACHA’s top overall ranking since defeating then-No. 1 Penn State in a pair of October games.
Fans hoping for a few good fights at the collegiate hockey level may be disappointed to learn that fighting occurs at a far less frequent clip than in the NHL. But when it does happen, the refs are likely turn the other way, briefly.
“You get a game misconduct for fighting,” says Honert. “A lot of refs will let it happen. But some refs break it up right away before anything starts.”
To keep your blood pumping in lieu of any fisticuffs, young Will recommends giving the “Harassing Illini” cheering section a try.
“If you don’t enjoy heckling you should stay out of the Harrassing Illini,” Gerard says. “Fans chant ‘It’s all your fault’ to the opposing goalie (after each Illini goal).”
Tournament action begins Friday morning at 10 a.m. with Iowa State facing Kent State, followed by Ohio versus Eastern Michigan at 1 p.m., second-seeded Lindenwood versus Western Michigan at 4 p.m. and the Illini hosting the nightcap at 7 p.m. against eighth-seeded Robert Morris College. Illinois knocked off Robert Morris with ease just last week, 6–1 and 5–2. Tourney games spill into Saturday and Sunday with matches to be determined by Friday’s results. All games will be played at the University of Illinois Ice Arena, nicknamed the Big Pond due to its significantly wider playing surface. General admission tickets are $5 for students and $8 for the public. If you can’t make it to the game but want in on the action, WPGU (107.1 FM) typically broadcasts Illini hockey games live from the arena.
Photo courtesy of Illinihockey.com