As the 2019 college football bowl season arrives, school pride will be on full display. But at many of those schools where football is king, whether it be an SEC powerhouse or a high-flying Pac-12 program, there is another group of athletes dedicated to representing their collegiate colors without nearly the notoriety and with no promise of professional careers: the club hockey team.
With only 61 men's teams in NCAA Division I hockey, most schools instead have a team in the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA), consisting of non-varsity and student-run clubs. Though it's a step down in talent from the Division I schools, there is a common thread between the two levels: unbelievable hockey jerseys.
The college athletics color palate and logo set is rich with opportunity to create unique jerseys with tremendous aesthetic appeal. The players themselves often lead the design process and hand over their ideas to the manufacturers. Many teams go through independent jersey manufacturers Rebirth Sports or JOG Athletics for high-end threads to call their own.
"It's kind of been like what Oregon did with football," said Doug Green, who is a former club college hockey player who now runs Rebirth Sports. "You've got these cool uniforms and players get excited about the better swag. Same thing would go on with programs we worked with. The jerseys get notoriety from around the university, more players decided to play, the team got better, they get better funding from the university and it all rolls into itself."
In the spirit of bowl season, I ranked 15 of my favorite club hockey jerseys from bowl-bound schools and gathered stories from the passionate hockey players who don them across all three divisions of the ACHA.
1. Oregon Ducks
I mean, just look at these jerseys. The color scheme is something you just don't find in hockey, and there's something about that cartoon duck head that works. Kelly green is a great look, and while the Oregon "O" has become well-known in sports, it probably wouldn't work as a primary logo on a hockey jersey. So long live the duck head.
Inside the program: Oregon is a Division II ACHA team that plays in the Pac-8 conference. Their unique jerseys have helped them gain more attention, and the fan base is growing "quickly," according to senior defenseman Warren Berg. When Golden State Warriors power forward Jordan Bell wore the team's jersey to Game 2 of the 2019 NBA Finals, the team was flooded with emails to buy the jersey, which the school allows the club team to sell through Rebirth Sports as a fundraiser.
My favorite thing about the ACHA jerseys is that we get so many colors you don't normally see in hockey. Boise State reminds a little of the Edmonton Oilers' colors, but these are a bit more vivid. The team has also incorporated the state outline and the modern bronco head to great effect.
Inside the program: The Broncos are starting to develop a nice rivalry with Oregon in ACHA Division II's Pac-8. Senior forward Eric Pinsky has seen tremendous growth in the program in his three years there. "I didn't have a desire to play," said Pinsky, whose stints in high-level junior were cut short by injuries. "I knew a few guys on the team and they told me what it was about. When I started playing [at Boise State], I fell in love with hockey again."
The incorporation of a Montreal Canadiens-like band around the torso is a very common theme among ACHA teams. The tiger paw lends itself well to such a setup. And once again, the pop in color that Clemson uses makes these unique within the hockey landscape.
Inside the program: Senior forward and club president Isaiah Jackson left the hockey-mad state of Massachusetts for the south and a different college experience. He landed at Clemson, where he plays for its ACHA Division III team.
"Going down south, I thought my career was over," said Jackson, who is hoping to attend medical school after graduation. "Being able to continue to play was definitely awesome. The guys have become my best friends and a second family. We do everything off the ice together, too. It's a social network and we get to play hockey."
It's one of the most recognizable brands in college athletics, and the hockey team wears the crimson "A" on its chest with pride. Both home and away uniforms are extremely clean.
Inside the program: Alabama is in the ACHA's Division I and has enjoyed a rapid rise in the ACHA ranks over the past few years. The team plays an hour from campus, which makes it challenging to draw students to games, but it has been getting more students involved on the team staff, putting together marketing and social media packages to raise the team's profile. Sophomore forward and club president Caelan Briere, the son of former NHL star Daniel Briere, has hockey in his blood.
"It's Alabama. You want the ultimate college experience? That's where you go," said Briere, who studies accounting. "I love my team. I definitely want to try my hardest and want to win, but I've also accepted that these might be my last years, and I'm just trying to get the best out of it. Down here, no one knows the name. I love having my dad as my dad, but it's nice to go somewhere where I can just be me."
These jerseys look as if they could have come out of any era. The classic college look is really captured here, which is why I like these so much.
Inside the program: Navy is the only of the three major service academies without an NCAA Division I hockey team. It does, however, have ACHA Division I and III teams that play in the academy's own arena just outside the guarded walls of the campus. And the top-tier team's games are some of the best-attended sporting events behind football and basketball.
Senior center Derek Golembrosky has spent the past four years finding the balance among his academy obligations and hockey while studying quantitative economics. "It's honestly awesome just to be able to step away for a second and just focus on hockey as opposed to all of the other stressors," says the Newark, Delaware native. "It's a blessing to be able to go to the rink for two hours and focus on something you love to do. It recharges you."
I really like the jerseys, but what really stands out is how UK's hockey team incorporates the checkerboard pattern found in the school's football end zones down the sides of its pant shells.
Inside the program: Kentucky, which plays ACHA Division II, first gained more widespread notoriety two decades ago when the team's schedule poster had UK alum Ashley Judd wearing one of the jerseys. Over the years, however, Kentucky's hockey team has built a nice niche for itself in Lexington with one of the most unique traditions anywhere in college hockey: It plays all of its home games at midnight.
"We've seen anywhere from 600 to 1,200 for a game," senior goalie Eric Williams said. "Most of the opponents are pretty pumped to be there since they don't see crowds like ours."
Iowa State is my alma mater and benefits from my unabashed bias. But the Cyclones hockey team makes good use of one of the school's secondary marks, differentiating it just enough from the varsity programs on campus while still being very much Iowa State.
Inside the program: Iowa State's top team has been around for more than 50 years and is a perennial contender in the ACHA's top division. In fact, the national championship trophy is called the Murdoch Cup, named after Iowa State's founder and longtime head coach Dr. Al Murdoch. The team is under the school's recreational services department, meaning it is not a club organization like many other teams in the ACHA.
"When you get to the top level of the ACHA and you're looking at the top 15 programs, it is very serious hockey," said Jason Fairman, who played and coached at Cornell and has been head coach at Iowa State for the past seven years. "You have a full-time coaching staff, they're recruiting full time. I was just in Minneapolis, I'm going to be going to Chicago. One of my assistants went to Connecticut, then Tampa, and later Vegas for showcase tournaments."
Florida has had to shift its jerseys to be in compliance with the school's trademark office, but this black jersey with the gator head is pretty great. The teeth in the striping is a unique touch.
Inside the program: An ACHA Division III program, Florida practices once a week in Jacksonville, which is an hour and a half from campus. And the team plays games in Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa, all of which are long drives. "It's a haul, but it builds character," senior defenseman and Long Island native Jake Dima said.
The team receives money from the school through donations and the recreational sports program. "Parents love to donate. We have a team GoFundMe," Dima said.
Two words: Burnt. Orange.
Inside the program: Texas plays in ACHA Division II and has built rivalries with many in-state teams through the Texas Collegiate Hockey Conference. Senior forward Nicolas Samadian remembers his freshman year when UT had just enough players try out to ice a team but not enough defensemen, forcing him to man the blue line for the first time in his hockey-playing life. Now the team is growing and drawing crowds as large as 400 inside the nearby Chaparral Ice, about 10 minutes from campus, thanks to grassroots marketing and social media efforts.
"I think the general reaction is, 'I didn't know Texas has a hockey team,'" Samadian recalled students often saying just a few years ago. "People have a pretty good understanding of us now. We have guys spread out around campus [in fraternities and other organizations] and they have pretty good Instagram followings, so we get more fans now."
10. Georgia Bulldogs
Georgia's team has some restrictions on what it can use for its hockey logo, but it has also made the most of it with a retro-style look.
Inside the program: Georgia is an ACHA Division III program and the reigning Southeastern Collegiate Hockey Conference champion. The team plays at the Classic Center, which is essentially a banquet center with a temporary ice sheet, complete with collapsible seating for up to 1,600 spectators. According to defenseman Kyle Harris, the team often gets around 1,400 fans for home games against bigger-name schools, which rivals most NCAA Division III and even some NCAA Division I programs.
"Hockey is a unique sport, especially in Georgia," Harris said. "You get them out to one game and they fall in love. It's cool to play in front of friends and classmates."
This is another color scheme unique to hockey but maintains a classic college hockey look.
Inside the program: The players on the Hokies' hockey team have to travel a little under an hour to practice and for home games, which doesn't make for a lot of opportunities to draw students. The team does have a dedicated locker room, which the players painted and designed themselves inside the arena. When it comes to road trips, the club rents three vans and hits the road.
"Sometimes if we're lucky, someone will chip in for a bus, but otherwise we rent vans from the school," said junior defenseman and team captain Trevor Murphy, a finance major from Raleigh, North Carolina. "We have an equipment van, and then the guys pile into the other two. We're basically all together."
12. Iowa Hawkeyes
The Hawkeyes were smart to take on the pattern from one of the best uniforms in men's college hockey: the Michigan Tech Huskies. They're laid out almost exactly the same. And it looks great.
Inside the program: Iowa is enjoying a particularly successful year in the ACHA Division II, playing primarily teams from the Midwest as part of the MACHA conference, though the team tries to play one long-distance game each season that includes a flight. This year, the team is going to San Diego State, not a bad move in avoiding the harsh Iowa winter.
Home games are in a mall in nearby Coralville, Iowa, which has brought snickers from opponents. "Sometimes we get chirps about how we play in the mall," senior captain Spencer Lhotka said, "but what could go wrong with having the best food court in the league?"
13. Indiana Hoosiers
There are very few script jerseys that work, but Indiana's does with the crimson and cream. The state symbol and interlocking IU on the shoulders are nice add-ons.
Inside the program: Indiana has ACHA Division II and III teams on campus. As is often the case with these clubs, there are a lot of duties that fall on the players to handle, which is why many of them have officers as mandated by the university. Junior defenseman Will Patton is the Division II team's president while also juggling a pre-med academic course load.
"I've enjoyed every second of it," Patton said. "This year is a little more stressful because I'm the one who has to have practices and game scheduled. This year is different, but it's not taking away my enjoyment."
I'm just a big fan of Washington State's cougar logo and enjoy seeing it on a hockey jersey. And if these look familiar, there's a good reason. The colors are almost identical to those of the Arizona Coyotes. When the NHL switched from Reebok to Adidas jerseys, the club team's coach bought as much of the expired stock as he could so the team would have plenty of jerseys for when new players come in.
Inside the program: The Cougars, who play at the ACHA Division II level in the Pac-8, have a practice arena that isn't even a full sheet of ice in nearby Moscow, Idaho. And so, the team often has to play home games over an hour away at a facility that is also home to rival Eastern Washington University.
"Our team has possibly one of the most unique atmospheres I've played on," senior defenseman Nick Torres said. "A lot of my teammates feel the same way. We're underdogs. We don't have facilities. It's on us to make ourselves successful. When I put on the jersey -- and the same goes for the other guys -- it's a symbol of all the hard work."
This one is cheating a bit -- the Gamecocks aren't bowl-eligible, but I still wanted to include them. The team actually had to change its jerseys recently, formerly using the "block C" that is the mark of the school's athletic teams. But they're still unmistakably Gamecocks in this color scheme.
Inside the program: The South Carolina hockey team competes in ACHA Division III as part of the SECHC. Players have formed friendships with other athletes on campus, helping raise the team's profile. South Carolina alum and current Baltimore Ravens tight end Hayden Hurst actually sent a donation last season to help the team get new jerseys. Ryan Hilinski, the current Gamecocks starting quarterback, has attended a few hockey games and was recently spotted wearing his own South Carolina hockey jersey. (The team will be playing a game on Jan. 25 to help raise money for Hilinski's Hope, the foundation in memory of Ryan's late brother Tyler.)
"This year we're really taking it to a new level, trying to be more professional and be more serious," junior defenseman and club president Evan Hoey said. "The thing I find really special about hockey, it doesn't matter when you play or when you show up, you're in this small stinky room and you have to bond together."