From Daily Bruin
By Amy Ionescu
Seven wins in 19 contests two years ago.
One point short of nationals in the 2021-2022 campaign.
Now, the Bruins are aspiring pioneers of hockey on the West Coast.
UCLA ice hockey fell five goals short of an undefeated season to post its best record in program history. With an 18-3-1 showing this past year, the blue and gold received invites from several showcases for the 2022-2023 season, including the Big Mountain West Classic, one of the prominent showcases in its division.
In accordance with their expanding schedule, the Bruins will be joining the West Coast Hockey Conference for the upcoming season, broadening their scope to Arizona in conference play and welcoming teams as far as Connecticut in nonconference competition.
“We made a name for ourselves,” said Duke Fishman, the junior co-captain forward and team president. “A bunch of schools that normally wouldn’t have traveled all this way to play us, they want to come play us now. It’s definitely moving in a positive direction just within a year of putting lots of effort into it.”
Fishman – who has played for UCLA since 2019 – averaged 2.58 points per game this past season, playing in 19 games and leading the team in goals and assists. As a result of his breakout year, Fishman was named to the American Collegiate Hockey Association Division 2 West All-Region Third Team – the first Bruin to ever achieve such an honor.
But the behind-the-scenes work was what truly propelled the team forward. Fishman – alongside senior defenseman and co-captain Billy Zegras and head coach Griffin McCarty – worked to build relationships with UCLA club sports and raised over $57,000 through two fundraising campaigns over the past year.
Beyond their fundraising efforts, the co-captains and head coach made sure players maintained fitness regimens, came to practice regularly and kept in touch outside of the rink.
“Duke, especially, put in so many hours into this team,” Zegras said. “To have the three of them (Fishman, McCarty and assistant coach Sean Allen) running the team was so incredibly beneficial for us, and that’s why I think next year is going to be even better.”
McCarty – who played on the team from 2018 to 2020 before taking on head coaching duties in 2021 – said the difference in the drive and passion of the team between his time playing and his time coaching has been notable.
“It’s completely night and day,” McCarty said. “Having leadership that’s helping explore options, … we got really lucky.”
As a team rapidly on the rise, UCLA has set its sights on a new goal – an appearance on the national stage.
And playing for the first time in a long time in a rink with locker rooms and gloves that match their helmets, the Bruins are well on their way to getting there.
“Adding a sense of legitness really works wonders for the program,” Zegras said. “Now that we’ve established that this year, next year, you’ll not only see that from the leadership but the guys who are returning. They’ll have that in place already – that expectation that this is real. We got to try hard and pass down that culture.”
UCLA’s 2021-2022 season came to a halt in February following a one-goal loss to the University of Providence, as the blue and gold missed what would’ve been their first ACHA Division 2 national tournament appearance this century. For next year, the Bruins aspire to make it further into the postseason as they play against more and more teams from all over the country.
But to reach its ultimate objective of becoming an NCAA Division I team, UCLA still has a long way to go.
“We almost have a bigger goal that we can shoot for, so that’s why we have this reason to take it seriously,” Fishman said.
The market is ripe, and the time is right.
After World War II, California found itself sorely lacking in the realm of Division I hockey, and the demand for representation on the Division I stage has heightened as the sport continues to flourish in all aspects but one. Professional, high school and youth teams have made large leaps in recent years, leaving collegiate hockey in the dust. Although around two-thirds of UCLA athletes prefer to stay in state, hockey talent in California doesn’t have this luxury, instead finding it necessary to go pursue on-ice opportunities elsewhere. In fact, each of the top five NCAA teams in the nation boasts at least one player from California on their roster.
As Arizona State proved seven years ago, the feasibility is there. Originally a club team, the Sun Devils became the first in the Pac-12 to garner enough donations to enter the Division I arena, posting a 90-119-18 record since conception.
With the right support, the blue and gold believe they can follow in Arizona’s footsteps and, in turn, break the decadeslong hockey drought on the West Coast.
But one impressive season for UCLA won’t immediately put California collegiate hockey on the map. As the Bruins continue to build their national acclaim, they hope young hockey players across the country are taking note.
“The more seasons like we have this year (will) let kids know if you are a great academic student and a great hockey player, come to UCLA,” McCarty said. “You’re going to get a great degree, you’re going to play high-level hockey, and you’re going to have a great time.”
(Originally published at https://dailybruin.com/2022/06/04/ucla-ice-hockey-gains-traction-as-team-skates-way-to-success)