It's 10:30 p.m. and players skate onto the ice to begin practice at the LaHaye Ice Center, home to the Liberty University Club Hockey teams in Lynchburg. At this hour the ice won’t be carved by any of Liberty’s teams. Instead, this is the Virginia Club Hockey Team taking to the ice for its once weekly practice after an hour of travel down Interstate-29.
The players skate towards Coach Ian Rush after he blows his whistle, setting practice into motion. Rush addresses the team before breaking the huddle, sending players into lines to begin a drill called “circles.”
Rush passes the puck out as the drill begins. Players skate out in their assorted uniforms, some Virginia jerseys and others from high schools and clubs of their pasts. Rush directs the players, and even joins in as a defender for a four-on-three man-down drill. This is his first time ever as a coach, and though surrounded by hockey his entire life, he is learning his role alongside the players.
The players skate hard until the clock strikes midnight, maximizing their expensive ice, which costs $290 — an issue that has been exacerbated since Virginia lost its rink in Charlottesville.
“The team has been in shambles since COVID and when the rink was [demolished] in 2018-19,” Declan Long, the team’s president, goalkeeper and second-year Engineering student, said. “It's been an uphill battle of getting the team back up to what it was before.”
Virginia once had a rink in Charlottesville, but since the closing of Main Street Arena in 2018, the Club Hockey team — one that has been successful in the past, winning league titles in 2016-17 and 2018-19 — has had to travel far and wide for precious ice that was once right in its backyard. This has revoked the opportunity to practice multiple times a week and host games that could easily be attended by students.
The once lively arena would often be filled to maximum capacity. The early arrivers would seat themselves in the bleachers, leaving everyone else who filled in to surround the rink and pack in like sardines. Not everyone was fortunate enough to have a view, peering over others to catch a glimpse of the ice, but they made sure to make their voices heard.
Now, Club Hockey is only able to have one practice a week, which usually turns out to be a little less than a five-hour endeavor with players returning to Charlottesville at around 1:30 a.m. The long excursion only consists of 90 minutes of practice with the rest for the long car ride. Some look negatively upon the long drives, but Long has used it as an opportunity to bond with other players on the team.
Long has a story similar to most of the players on the team, having grown up with dreams to play professional hockey. As Long and others began to focus on academics more in high school, they watched their professional or college hockey dreams fade, but saw an exciting opportunity attending Virginia which offered a unique combination of high academics and Club Hockey.
After a year in net for the team, Long added president to his resume and was thrown into a tough mix of problems. Most importantly, he needed to find a coach or someone who could at least work their sideline during games.
A week before tryouts in August, Long set up the Club Hockey booth at the activities fair with hopes of pulling a few more players to Lynchburg for tryouts. In the wave of people, signs, and loud screaming, a Virginia Hockey jersey worn by Long caught Rush’s attention from his booth. Rush happened to be at the fair, as he was working his job as a Catholic missionary tasked with working with college students.
Rush introduced himself to Long and was asked two questions — whether he was a student and whether he wanted to be the team’s coach.
After a few lunches with Long, Rush — who played club hockey at James Madison in college but has no experience coaching — took on the role, happy to help the team whose former coach stepped down from the position last year.
Looking ahead, some of the younger players on the team have goals for the future growth and success of the program.
“[We are] hoping to leave it better than we found it when we are fourth-years so it's more of an established club than when we came in,” said Danny Muth, a transfer from Colby and second-year College student.
Despite the talent and potential of this team, the struggle is chemistry simply due to a lack of time together on the ice. Other clubs have the opportunity to practice multiple times a week and start much earlier than Virginia Club Hockey. The root of the lack of ice time boils down to the need for a rink in Charlottesville, for which many of the players, led by Long, plan to become active in petitioning the University and the City.
“Not only is [the rink] an asset to the school hockey team, but it's an asset for the entire community … and it's also a money making business,” fourth-year College student Jarred Cohen said.
Unfortunately, the long hours to practice and expensive dues have discouraged some students from joining. Long recently worked to mitigate one of these problems by applying for grants such at the Parents Fund and through Student Activities Fee funding. This funding, which has since been approved, will allow Long to lower dues for future semesters, attracting more players to the team.
Looking to the future, Long says that high schoolers often reach out to him, intending to apply to Virginia with interest about the Club Hockey program. This has provided Long confidence and excitement about the years ahead for the team. Additionally, with a young roster, much of the team is expected to return next season.
“I can see in the character of many of the players the drive and spirit that this team needs to flourish,” Cohen said.
After all of the pucks this team has eaten over the years on and off the ice, including this year, the team sits at a 2-3-1-1 record with a chance at a playoff berth. A win over Richmond in their final league game of the season will propel them into the postseason. The team faced them Dec. 3, defeating Richmond 4-2, and if they can do it again it will mark their first step on their return to greatness.