Big Game On Campus

The ACHA Continues A Long Tradition Of Giving Hockey Players A Chance To Continue Playing While They Earn Their Degree
Brian Lester


Craig Barnett likes to tell a story about his days playing minor league hockey within the New York Rangers organization and relate it to what the ACHA can offer to a student-athlete who wants to continue playing the game he or she loves.

“I was with a team in Pennsylvania and I’d come off the ice after practice and it would take me an hour to shovel the snow off my car, but I had college teammates playing down in Arizona and Texas, and they were playing 36 holes of golf after practice,” the executive director of the American Collegiate Hockey Association recalled.

“I don’t think people realize that you can still play a high level of college hockey in markets people don’t think have hockey. I love educating people about the ACHA and the opportunities it offers.”
In place for more than 30 years now, the ACHA started in 1991 as a non-varsity option for students to play college hockey.

Over the course of three decades, the growth has been phenomenal, with the league ballooning to more than 450 teams across the nation as well as in two Canadian provinces, featuring teams in three men’s divisions and two divisions for women.

“ACHA has a wide-range of experience and talent levels, and that’s what makes it special,” long-time Liberty coach Chris Lowes said.

Lowes has been involved in the ACHA for 15 years as a coach. An alum of Liberty, Lowes played four seasons for the Flames. He then spent nine seasons coaching the men’s ACHA Division I team before taking over the women’s Division I team and guiding it to back-to-back ACHA national titles in 2018 and 2019.

“I began my coaching career fairly casually. It was a way to give back and stay involved in the sport at Liberty,” Lowes said. “It quickly grew into a healthy outlet for my competitive nature and then into a passion.”

Like Lowes, Gary Astalos, the Division I men’s coach at Adrian, played ACHA hockey at Eastern Michigan University. He’s headed into his seventh year as a coach, he is impressed with how far the league has come in the last decade alone.

“The biggest thing to me is how much better the competition has gotten,” Astalos said. “I think a lot of that has to do with seeing more colleges fully support their ACHA programs. You have more full-time coaches, and ultimately that has helped with recruiting efforts, which is why you are seeing an increase in the level of competition.”

Barnett said that can also be attributed to opportunity. There are only so many programs and roster spots available in NCAA hockey, be it Division I or Division III, and the ACHA gives players more options.

“There are a lot of players capable of playing at the top level of college hockey, but not as many spots,” Barnett said. “It’s in the best interest of players to know the landscape and know there are options like the ACHA. It offers so many opportunities for players to go to college, earn a degree and play hockey.”
And it’s hockey at a high level.

“Club hockey is probably not the best way to describe it,” Barnett said. “You look at the [ACHA] national tournaments and the hockey is extremely good. Our top men’s level, the top 20-25 teams, have budgets that would surprise a lot of people. The coaching is phenomenal and the facilities they have are great.”

When Barnett, a former NCAA hockey coach and athletic administrator, took the job as executive director in 2018, he took a look at Newsweek magazine to see its list of the top 25 universities in the world. Seventeen of those are in the United States, and 14 have ACHA programs.

The ACHA has been a long-time member of USA Hockey and recently a five-year extension of their partnership centered around supporting players and teams across the country. The agreement includes support of ACHA National Championships and provides opportunities for ACHA men’s and women’s players to represent the U.S. in the World University Games.

The ACHA and its member programs also benefit from the work being done by USA Hockey programs at the grass-roots level to develop more high end hockey players in places that have been bolstered by NHL expansion.

“The NHL does a great job of working where they are, growing the sport in many non-traditional markets, and they go into those communities and have youth programs,” Barnett said. “What you are seeing at the college level now is a lot of good players have been developed through those programs.
“We’re fortunate to work with these teams and their community development departments to put on showcases, which allows us a chance to talk with families and tell them the story of the ACHA and the opportunities it provides.”

And there is no shortage of opportunities for players, no matter what they’re looking for.

“There are players coming out of high school or junior hockey that might want something competitive, or maybe academics is the priority and playing hockey isn’t as big of a deal, but they still want to be able to play,” Barnett said. “We have programs at that level as well. I don’t think any other association can compare.”

The travel aspect is an appealing factor as well.

“One of the things that makes it special, something we talk about on the recruiting trail, is that you get to see different parts of the country,” Lowes said. “A lot of leagues play more regional [schedules], but if you look at my team, we have been up and down the East Coast, but we’ve also been to Colorado, North Dakota, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan and Texas. That offers a really unique experience for the athletes.”

Lowes and Astalos both said they expect the ACHA to continue to experience growth. Barnett does as well and is always looking at how things can continue to move forward.

“I like to assess and reassess things, and look at how we are doing things,” Barnett said. “Ultimately, we are working for our student athletes, and we want to make sure we provide them with a positive environment to move on to college and play hockey, and have a great experience doing it.”

Brian Lester is a freelance writer based in Pensacola, Fla.





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