From The Los Angeles Loyolan
By Catherine Galanti
For almost 100 years, ice hockey has been a part of LMU’s history. Even with such a legacy on campus, there were still things that the team had yet to achieve. Now, one more thing has been crossed off the list. For the first time in the team’s long history, the Lions are conference champions.
The path to the championship was not completely straightforward. In fact, things unfolded quickly, and in a way no one could have predicted. On Friday, Feb. 4, University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) forfeited the scheduled game due to a COVID-19 outbreak, giving LMU the win by default. That win meant LMU finished conference play with a perfect 6-0-0 record, and the rights to the West Coast Hockey Conference (WCHC) title. LMU’s dominance over conference rivals UCSB, Long Beach State and Cal State Fullerton was clear throughout this season. Even UCSB, finishing second in league standings, only produced a 3-3 conference record.
“I think it puts [this year’s] team in a league above everybody else. That’s no disrespect to any of the other teams that LMU has had. It’s tough to win the league because we have great opponents that we have to play,” said head coach Jack Hyman. “I guess the overall additional significance is that this team will be able to say that they’re the first team ever to win the league for LMU. Hopefully that’s a sign of things to come.”
By winning the conference, LMU will return to the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) regionals, which has not been done since back-to-back appearances in 2014 and 2015, the only two regionals appearances in team history. Presently, LMU holds a 17-6-1 record overall, a marked improvement even on the seasons when they had made regionals in the past. In 2014, the team finished at 14-15-3, and in 2015 their record was 13-11-2.
So what’s the secret to this year’s success? Clearly, the team is talented on the ice. But above all, their success can be attributed to two components: strong leadership and an even stronger team culture.
“When you have that sort of environment and locker room, you’re just destined to succeed.” – Connor Kaczmarek
“To be honest, I don’t really know what it means to be involved with a historic team. I’m just lucky to be on the team with a bunch of guys who I call brothers,” said Austin Billings, the team’s captain and a senior forward. “That’s probably the most important thing to me. I mean, if we were undefeated all season, that’s great. If we lost every game, that’s great. I care more about the guys who I’m with and spending time with, and the bonds we’ve gotten to make.”
“As a freshman, I didn’t really know what to expect coming into it,” said freshman forward Connor Kaczmarek. “In the first week of training camp, everyone was just bought in. Everyone wanted to win, everyone wanted to play for each other. When you have that sort of environment and locker room, you’re just destined to succeed.”
The team’s chemistry goes beyond the work put in on the ice and has allowed the team to become much closer.
“There’s been some freshmen who have been [at my house] longer today than I have,” said Billings, laughing. He continued, talking about how the culture shift had been a conscious effort by team members.
“[The change started with upperclassmen] looking at our freshman year and a little bit of sophomore year and just kind of asking ‘What were we missing? What is the problem and how can we fix it?’” Billings explained. “Then, like a month or so before training camp, it’s like, ‘Alright, we know who the leaders are. Now what do we want to do to fill that issue or that emptiness that we had in previous years? How can we make that better for the new freshmen and for the rest of the team?’”
Billings may be the captain, but he is just one of many players considered to be leaders on the team. 16 of the team’s 29 players are upperclassmen, including eight seniors who were recently honored. Their departure will leave big shoes to fill, but it looks like the rest of the team is ready to step up.
“We have a couple of juniors who don’t have letters but still lead by example, who I believe can take on the captaincy and the assistant captaincies,” said Kaczmarek. Even as a current freshman, he’s already looking towards taking on more responsibility himself. “I’d love to take the juniors’ role of just leading by example, doing whatever I can on the ice to help the team win games.”
The Lions’ regional matchup has not yet been decided, as there is still a week left of the regular season. Of roughly 60 teams in the region, the top 14 will make the regionals, and whoever LMU faces is sure to pose a challenge.
“We’re not going to regionals to play a bad team. We’re going to play a really solid team who knows what they’re doing,” said Kaczmarek. “We know that we’ve been playing these types of teams all year, but we’re excited for it. We’re excited for the challenge. It’s something we’ve been working all year for, so we’re going to take this opportunity and we’re going to try and run with it.”
The Lions have an additional goal as they head into regionals: go further than ever before. The tournament is single-elimination, meaning that if a team loses their first matchup, that’s the end of their season. In both of the previous two appearances, LMU exited after the first round.
“We’re playing on a Thursday and our goal is to then play on Friday, because that means we won,” said Coach Hyman. “The challenge is playing a fantastic 60 minutes against whoever we play, and the team that we’re going to play is going to be very good.”
Hyman, an LMU hockey alumnus himself, served as team captain through both the 2014 and 2015 regionals, during his junior and senior seasons.
“As a coach, watching instead of playing, I see some similarities with the care and effort that the players on this team have, and the care and effort that myself and my teammates had when I went. The only difference is, you know, I’m coaching now instead of playing,” said Hyman with a laugh. “I miss playing, but as far as a close alternative can be, coaching is right there. So I’m just happy to be going back [to regionals] with this group that really wanted it.”
(Originally published at https://www.laloyolan.com/sports/lmu-hockey-makes-history-with-conference-title/article_b2debe29-8602-543a-963c-1714b3656b84.html)