Advancing the puck: Redbird Hockey Club achieves goals in historic season

From Illinois State University News

By Matt Wing


A trip to the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Men’s Division I National Championships was the icing on the cake for Illinois State University’s Redbird Hockey Club this season.

The Redbirds advanced to the ACHA nationals for the first time in club history. The team’s nationals experience began with a convincing 9-1 opening round win over Indiana University of Pennsylvania. In Illinois State’s second game, against Ohio University, the No. 2 team in the country, the Redbirds fell by a 1-0 margin. The games were played March 16-17 at the New England Sports Center in Marlborough, Massachusetts.

“It was absolutely surreal, realizing we were part of ISU history,” said senior Wil Kelly, a construction management major from Lombard and defenseman for Illinois State’s Division 1 team. “The guys all banded together to reach this one goal of going to nationals.”

Redbird Hockey is a registered student organization (RSO) and one of 27 Sport Clubs offered at Illinois State. The club was founded in 1969, making it one of the oldest RSOs on campus. A Women’s Ice Hockey Club was founded this academic year. The men’s team boasts Division 1, 2, and 3 squads with a combined roster between 75-80 players. The D1 team that went to nationals competes at the highest level of club hockey.

Most Redbird Hockey players come from suburban Chicago and St. Louis. Many of them already know each other when they arrive on campus. “There’s a lot of familiarity with guys previously having played together or against each other,” said senior recreation and parks administration major Adam Trzaska of Franklin Park, president of Redbird Hockey’s Student Board and a member of its D2 team.

Club sports are a world separate from NCAA athletics. Illinois State’s D1 hockey team boasted wins this season over household names like the University of Illinois, University of Oklahoma, and the University of Oregon; five of the Redbirds’ losses, however, came at the hands of the lesser-known University of Jamestown.

“The main difference between NCAA and ACHA, in my opinion, is just funding and recognition,” Trzaska said. “The ACHA is very competitive and very organized. From that perspective, it’s very similar to NCAA hockey.”

As one of Illinois State’s Sport Clubs, Redbird Hockey receives university funding, but the majority of the team’s budget comes from player dues. Its three coaches are paid. Volunteers serve on the student board and fill positions that include a general manager, and directors of operations, marketing and merchandising, and accounting. There is a public address announcer and web broadcaster, photographers, a videographer, and individuals responsible for social media.

Redbird Hockey practices and plays at the conjoined Grossinger Motors Arena and Bloomington Ice Center. The high demand for ice time and need to balance players’ class schedules—and share ice time with local youth and recreational leagues—means most practices are early in the morning or late at night.

Redbird Hockey teams play full schedules on limited budgets. They travel by bus for contests in faraway locations like Oklahoma, Nebraska, and North Dakota. Its commercial flight to compete at nationals was its only air travel this year. A GoFundMe page raised over $9,000 to help cover expenses related to the team’s trip to nationals.

“Hockey is our most unique club with multiple teams, coaches, and a full infrastructure,” said Kelsey Orrill, an assistant director in Illinois State Campus Recreation who oversees Sport Clubs. “They are self-sufficient, but we still work with the student leaders directly to make sure all travel, funding, and safety requirements are met.”

The success of Redbird Hockey’s 2022-23 season is defined not only by wins and losses, but by continuing efforts to build and further enhance team culture. When asked about season highlights beyond the trip to nationals, Kelly pointed to successful “Skate with the Birds” and “Teddy Bear Toss” promotions this winter. In the latter, fans were encouraged to bring stuffed animals to throw on the ice after the Redbirds scored their first goal in a December victory over the University of Illinois; the stuffed animals were donated to children’s hospitals.

“There’s a little hallway that goes from our bench to our locker room, and just having kids hanging over it, asking us for sticks, asking us to sign pucks—it felt just like a pro game,” Kelly said. “It was a really cool feeling to have such an impact on a community and getting kids to want to play the sport we love.”

Kelly and Trzaska said their involvement with the hockey team has been central to their time at Illinois State. “When I came here, I just had so many new friends to hang out with,” Trzaska said. “If I didn’t join hockey, ISU would have been a totally different experience for me.”

“It’s been beyond exceptional,” Kelly added. “I couldn’t be more grateful.”

As they finish their time on campus, both said they were proud of their contributions to Redbird Hockey. They’re leaving it in a better state than they inherited it four years ago.

“It’s growing, fans are coming out, and hopefully the team will just get better every year,” Trzaska said.

(Originally published at