Ohio University D-2 Hockey: From Natty Ice to the Ice at the National Tournament

“Are you drunk?”

“…Kind of.”

“Damn it, Darrow. Well, just go stand in front and don’t do anything stupid.”

To be fair, it was my roommates 21st birthday the night before, and even though we had practice at 6 a.m. the next morning, I wasn’t going to not go out. I got back to the dorm at 3 a.m. and knew if I fell asleep there wasn’t a chance I was going to wake up, so I just decided to watch some Netflix then head to practice reeking of the Junction.

It was what it was, it was the culture we created at the time. Showing up to practice or games hungover was the norm.

For those of you who don’t know the short version of my story, it goes like this:

I showed up on Ohio University’s campus in 2009 with every intention of playing division one club hockey. I turned down D3 NCAA offers to be there. The school was perfect and I wanted to contend for a national title. I got to campus, bragged for a week to everyone about how I was going to play hockey (like during those ice breakers on the first day of class), got cut, then had to seemingly live the next four years of my life with my tail tucked between my legs.

When news got out to the other programs that had recruited me, a few of them tried to get me to transfer, and I almost did. But, I was determined to work all year on my game and redeem myself sophomore year.

Tryouts sophomore year came about and I had, in my mind, the perfect week. I scored goals, played physical, and even grew my hair out so that I could add a little flavor to match my atrocious red equipment from juniors. But it was the same story.

I was told that I hadn’t made the top five centers and that I was being cut… again.

“Coach, I play wing.”

At the time, I felt like my life was over and that the last 16 or so years of work on the ice was worthless, but looking back it was the best thing to ever happen to me.

Lucky for me, two former division one guys had decided they were going to start up a division two program. And my first thought was “perfect, now I can prove myself.”

I thought that the D2 team was going to be used as a farm system for the D1 team. If someone gets hurt, which happens all the time, they would call one of us up to fill the void. Turns out, that wasn’t the case at all, and it honestly makes sense looking back.

The D1 team had their identity. They had been on campus for decades and they were damn good every year. They were fast, tough, dominant, and albeit being a club sport, one of the most supported organizations on campus.

We, as the new D2 team, had to find our own identity. We decided we were going to be the most fun team on campus.

For the first two years, we were a bunch of borderline alcoholics who just happened to play hockey on weekends. For me, the earliest days of the program were embarrassing at times.

Our original roster was put together by attending a meeting. No joke, that was the original tryout. You walked into the conference room upstairs at Bird Arena and signed a few sheets of paper, obliged to pay the amount for the year, then showed up at practice the next day.

I will never forget the first day of practice. There I was, a former two-time first team All-State selection in high school, captain of my Junior A Tier-III team, now skating with kids who couldn’t make prep JV.

“What the hell are we even doing?”

Don’t get me wrong, there was still talent sprinkled throughout our lineup. But the first year, it was really thin.

Nick Frasse and Sean Roach started the team, and I wonder what was going through their minds as we practiced for those first few weeks. I wonder if they saw the potential of the program, or if they thought they bit off more than they could chew. Both had played D1 before, and now they were stuck with this.

We actually had a pretty good inaugural season. We went 13-8-2, and the core members of our team all became really tight. Frasse and Roach installed a lot of traditions that I believe are still in place today, we had 128 N Congress – the hockey house – and by years end, it really felt like a team.

As I mentioned, we had to create our own identity as a program, and that first year we did so many ridiculous things. Over the top celebrations were a staple. In the last game of the year against West Virginia, we scored on the power play, and four of the guys all huddled by the net while Jarrod Carley put his glove on the end of his stick and pretended to take a group photo. Classic.

After another PP goal, Frasse grabbed me by the back of the pants and threw me down the ice like a curling stone while K.C. Fraize used his stick as a sweeper.

We were, by no stretch, over the top ridiculous. And it was the most fun I had ever had playing hockey.

My entire life, hockey was a top priority, and I always loved the game, but there was always a serious stipulation behind every game. Playing D2, I realized I could finally relax and actually enjoy playing the game I loved.

But at times, we got a little too relaxed.

When my junior year rolled around we had finally organized a real, on-ice tryout for the second season of our program. We had a new coach, former D1 captain Phil Oberlin, and he inherited a bunch of guys who he was used to seeing trash the bar he managed.

Little by little, we were doing things that began legitimizing us as a program. We joined the TSCHL, which has since grown into a hell of a league, and finally began to develop a few rivals.

However, we also continued our ridiculous ways and refused to set boundaries on going out before games and practices. Our homecoming game against Eastern Kentucky my junior year was one of the most ridiculous hockey games I’ve ever been a part of.

After winning 17-1 on Friday night, I drank until about 4 a.m., with some of the guys (only the ones 21 and older of course) keeping it going until 7 or 8 in the morning. I went back to sleep, knowing we had a game at 11 a.m. on Saturday, but was woken by my roommate and his older sister who was visiting to go to Broney’s at 6 a.m. for champagne slushies.

Running off about 90 minutes of sleep from a six-hour bender, we stayed and drank there for three hours before I told them I had to go the rink. As I stumbled down Court St., I was dragged into The Crystal by one of the bartenders and we took a lunch box, before I finally made it to Bird Arena. I could barely stand, yet alone skate.

I looked around the room and realized I wasn’t alone. I took one shift, tried to take a slap shot from the point, got too dizzy when I raised my stick back, fell over, and then benched myself for the rest of the game. Only our freshman and sophomores played that game, and we still won 9-1.

Now, this article isn’t about my alcoholic tendencies and the cancer I probably was to our program by encouraging this type of behavior. It’s the fact that it was acceptable. We had made it and deemed it okay. And this was only five years ago.

Deep down, we knew we were never going to be a legitimate contender for a national title behaving this way, but we were having the time of our lives.

I just want to keep saying, this was the most fun I ever had playing hockey.

Heading into my senior year, and the third year of our program, we were really starting to make strides. We had talented players from top to bottom, and were one of the best teams in our league.

I, being the idiot that I was, showed up to the first two tryouts a mess. I was one of the leading scorers the two years prior and took that for granted.

I was probably the worst player on the ice for those first two days.

Jordan Frasse, Nick Frasse’s younger brother, told me the story about how he was a freshman and he saw how terrible I was those first two sessions and he looked at his brother on the bench and asked him, “This guy… scores goals? He’s awful.”

Before the third tryout, Coach Phil pulled me aside and told me that I wasn’t invincible, and that if I didn’t start taking this seriously, he was going to cut me.

It was later this year that the guys and Coach Phil started to try implementing the idea that maybe going out every night before games wasn’t the best idea, but we broke that rule weekly. We were there to have fun first and contend second – that was the atmosphere we created.

I remember trying out for the D1 team and the tryouts extend into the first weekend of the school year. The purpose is to have the players not go out and remain focused on the task at hand. It’s a test of will. It was hard to watch all your roommates go out and have a great time while you stayed in the dorm, but it was worth it if you made the team.

We tried adding Saturday and Sunday to our tryout schedule senior year and it was hilarious. The vets all went out the night before, and I remember walking into the locker room and half of us being keeled over and lying on the floor.

But the new guys abided. They stayed in. They showed up wanting to make the team. I remember thinking that morning that maybe this was the start of something. Maybe one day this would be the norm.

Senior year came and went, and so did our first full graduating class. We lost Frasse and Roach, and I was somehow voted the second captain of the program.

My final year playing D2 started disastrous. We began the year something like 0-7-2 and I had two game misconducts in the first nine games. Pretty solid leadership on my end.

This was really the year that there was tension on whether or not we should go out before games. The three years prior, we were still winning. We’d go out on Friday night, then win on Saturday afternoon.

Now that we had created a legitimate schedule, and were playing teams like Miami (OH) and Bowling Green, as opposed to the EKU’s and Wright State’s, our bad habits began to show. We just couldn’t get away with it anymore.

I remember all the seniors sat down and we went over a new policy. I’m pretty sure I was the only one of the six seniors who wanted to allow us to still go out before games. We came to a compromise – you can go out, but no getting over the top drunk.

It was clear that I may have been the one holding us back from getting over a particular hump, but I was selfish, and wanted to keep doing things the way we had in years prior.

We rattled off like 10 or 11 straight wins after our 0-7-2 start, and really began to show that we had the talent to belong. The culture of the team was also changing.

Coach Phil was recruiting players, and not just getting bodies, he was getting us legitimate talent. We had freshman who were quickly becoming our best players. They came into the program wanting to win first, and party second, a complete opposite philosophy of what we had been using.

It was clear to me that the program was headed in the right direction. I knew that I was probably negatively affecting the locker room in terms of wanting to enjoy my last year of college, and putting that above winning hockey games.

But this was the most fun I had ever had playing hockey in my life. Our team was so tight knit, and I wasn’t ready to give up race poker.

I knew that once all of the founding players were gone, it would be a completely different program. I knew that Coach Phil needed to get our booze-filled habits away from the new players.

I just never thought it would happen so fast, and I’ve never been so happy it did.

Two weeks ago, I sat on my couch with my six-month-old son and watched as my former team defeated Toledo (who we were I believe 0-8-1 against when I was in school) to advance to the National Tournament for the first time in our program’s history.

All I could do was sit there and mumble “unbelievable.” I must have said it a dozen times.

Only three years removed from my captaincy, Coach Phil and the leaders in the locker room completely transformed this team and made them an absolute force in the D2 club hockey world.

Looking at the roster, there are ten guys left who were freshman or sophomores when I was in my final year with the team. A lot of them know what it used to be like. And I can’t imagine what it was like to be a part of the transformation.

As far as I know, Coach Phil and his younger brother Patrick have this team as tight as ever. I can see on Snapchat the ways they spend their time together on the nights before games, and it’s not taking frozen fours at 1:30 a.m.

The D1 program at OU is one of the best, if not the best, programs in the country. They cast a huge shadow over the D2 program. We would joke about it, but it was tough watching the 1,000+ person crowd for the D1 game dissipate into the street as we took the ice. A few people would stand around and look at us and be like “wait, who are these guys?”

We would stand in the tunnel and pretend to be commentators to help ease the pain of watching every single fan leave.

“And the D2 Bobkittens take the ice to a sold-out Bird Arena crowd!”

But now the D2 team has earned, at the very least, a top-16 finish in the nation.

As an alum, the entire reason for this article is to just say how proud I am of all of you. And while I know the crowds aren’t large, and the recognition is hardly there, your alumni is so damn proud of you guys.

You guys have all made a sacrifice that I wasn’t willing to make when I had the opportunity, and I’m so damn proud that it’s paying off for everyone in that locker room.

I don’t regret any part of my four years playing D2, and I think I speak for every one of my former teammates when I say that, but I also know that there were guys in the locker room who would have given everything to play in the national tournament.

Watching you guys defeat Toledo was one of the greatest moments I have ever witnessed. I felt a part of it, even though I was hundreds of miles away.

What the players and coaches have done to transform our program into a contender for the national title in such a short amount of time is nothing short of unbelievable.

I went to OU wanting to contend for a national title. It’s why I went there. Sure, my path strayed off the straight and narrow, but watching the program I was a part of for four years actually have a shot at doing so is unreal.

Soak this weekend in boys, we will all be watching. And win or lose, we will always be proud.

 

 

 

 

 

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