Tens of thousands of high school student-athletes play hockey across the country, but only 156 colleges offer men’s and/or women’s NCAA programs, most located in the Northeast and Midwest regions.
In 2020, only 10 percent of male and 21 percent of female hockey athletes played at a collegiate varsity level, leaving the majority of students questioning if their athletic career would abruptly end.
However, 430 colleges in the continental U.S. Alaska, and two Canadian provinces offer men’s and women’s university club teams as part of the American Club Hockey Association (ACHA).
Founded in 1991 with just 15 teams, the ACHA has surpassed 500 teams involving more than 13,000 student-athletes. Men’s ACHA hockey has three divisions, DI, DII, and DII, and women’s ACHA hockey has two divisions, DI and DII. Some schools boast multiple teams, like Arizona State University’s three men’s division teams and a women’s DI team, to engage more students and provide competitive play after high school.
No pro, no problem
Besides the competitive environment or 2-year mandatory juniors experience required to secure an NCAA roster spot, student-athletes opt-out of varsity play for several reasons. Some don’t want to play professionally; others are focused on preparing for their career or want to experience all college has to offer.
ACHA teams offer student-athletes the chance to stay active in a sport they enjoy while also allowing time for studies. Depending on the organization, most ACHA teams practice about twice a week, host games on weekends, and schedule contests against local division teams. However, like the NCAA, the ACHA has academic standard requirements of their athletes and a five-year playing limit.
In a 2016 interview with USA Hockey, ACHA executive director Mike Walley outlined the organization’s goal to provide a professional, collegiate experience and the opportunity “to represent [the athlete’s] university, all while maintaining a focus on graduation and preparation for future success.”
Collegiate Club Consideration
Contrasting the NCAA’s location limits, ACHA programs span cross-country and internationally. For high school students beginning the college search and wanting to continue their hockey career, consider exploring schools with these programs as well as joining summer college leagues to meet other club players in the off-season.
Hockey Finder ( https://www.hockeyfinder.com/hockey-after-high-school ) has a handy list of colleges and universities with ACHA programs, starting with the men’s division schools then women’s division schools. The list also includes the programs’ website and Instagram for more information and contact points to ask about tryouts, roster needs, and cost.
What if the school I want to attend doesn’t have an ACHA team?
The beauty of the ACHA is its continuous expansion. Each school had someone say, “I think we need a hockey team,” and club hockey was built. Dedicated students at Drake University (DIII) of Des Moines, Iowa start their inaugural ACHA season in 2022-23 with 16 players and counting.
“Playing hockey is important to me, and I focused my college search on schools that had existing teams,” Griffin Dyka, Drake University Club Hockey President, said.
Teams are organized and run by student leaders with professors or faculty as advisors. Club hockey teams typically fall under the club or recreational sports department rather than the athletic department. This means students are often financially responsible for the means to play, including ice time and travel requirements.
While that might sound like a free-for-all, the ACHA is governed by USA Hockey. They provide organizational structure, like the leagues and national tournaments, as well as disciplinary oversight to prevent unnecessary harm and injury to club players. USA Hockey’s reach extends beyond just administrative roles for the ACHA. Each year, the best club players from around the country have an opportunity to represent Team USA in the FISU World University Games, a display of the world’s greatest student-athletes through multiple sports.
ESPN can’t miss the action either, broadcasting the ACHA “Game of the Week” on ESPN3. Other specialty games can range from intense rivalries like Duke and UNC’s face-off at the Carolina Hurricanes PNC Arena to annual meetings like the Midnight Madness between UCLA and USC.
Benefits Beyond Breakaways
Playing any sport post-high school continues healthy physical habits built on years of practice. However, playing club hockey has additional mental, social, and professional benefits.
The abrupt change of a new life chapter can prompt a need for something familiar to ease the transition.
“As a transfer student, it was a perfect outlet to skate with new friends, practice and play the game I grew up loving”, says Gavin Dyka, Drake University Business Law student.
Continuing a long-enjoyed activity can bring familiarity while meeting new friends and developing a new team. The more time spent together during practice, the more social connections and camaraderie is built. Since ACHA programs are student-led, leadership opportunities and networking with other university clubs help develop professional skills and connections helpful in the workforce.
The ACHA prepares students beyond athletics for a bright and successful future.
Want to skate with hundreds of players from over 30 ACHA teams this summer? Check out the Summer Club Hockey program by Hockey Finder https://www.hockeyfinder.com/collegehockey/