Updated: Aug 20, 2019
By Matthew Ondesko, Managing Editor Photos courtesy of Geoff Schneider/Sports Union
It’s an unusually warm day in the beginning of February. It feels more like Spring time then it does late winter. But, the brisk chill in the air reminds you that winter is till here. That is can come back anytime.
As 6 a.m. approaches on this Tuesday morning, there is a hustle and bustle inside the Northtowns Center in Amherst. The parking lot is full of cars, which is strange for this time of day. As you walk inside the building you can hear the pucks hitting the boards and the chatter of players on the ice.
It’s hockey practice for the both the club teams of the University at Buffalo. There is no fancy 3 p.m. schedule practice. This is old school grinding. On one rink in the men’s team and on the NHL 2 rink is the women’s club team.
The 6 a.m. wake call harkens back to the days of Pee-Wee hockey. Those days when mom and dad would get you half ready at home before finishing it off at the rink. It reminds the players that they are playing for the love of the game.
There are no Division I scholarships being given out here. Shoot, these players are paying their way just to get on the ice. It’s a total commitment for the love of just playing the sport. In the case of the women’s hockey team these players truly are playing for the name on the front of the jersey and not the back.
“Monetary, the players contribute financially to play and fund raise to defray costs. To save money we travel to away games in a caravan of personal cars. This year, Nationals are in Dallas, TX so transportation will be costly as we'll fly if we're lucky enough to get a bid,” stated UB coach Mark Lauber. “Coaching this team brings me a lot of joy as most if not all the players have chosen academics over sports and the club program allows them to continue playing a sport they love while balancing their school and outside employment. I enjoy their enthusiasm and one of the surprising things is the parent involvement. Most parents make the road-trips with us to watch the games, sometimes from great distances.”
Most people know the University at Buffalo for its high academics and the very successful men and women’s basketball teams. Recently, the football program has seen success as well. What people don’t know is UB has a very club program when it comes to the women’s hockey team.
This team has been on a roll over the last three years and it has continued this season, Lauber’s second. It’s amazing for a team like the Bulls to be so good over a long period of time due to the commitment it takes to play the sport.
With so much going on with the players, it takes a strong commitment to play club hockey. The early wake up calls are always stuff mentality. Then add in the school work and the fact that the players have to chip in money makes the decision to stick with it a tough one.
One that has stuck with it for all four years in forward Maddie Norton. Norton has seen players come and go over her time with the program. She knows what it takes to be committed to the program - and sometimes that can be a tough sell.
“There seems to be a grey area when it comes to commitment level. That’s when we see problems arise. Some girls are very into hockey, being 100 percent committed to all aspects of it, wanting to do anything to win, etc, while some are here to have fun while getting through their college years. It can be difficult to get everyone on the same page at times, especially when it comes to winning and big decisions such as going to national tournaments, etc, that require time and money,” stated Norton. “It definitely takes a certain level of commitment, especially when you have to wake up at 5 a.m. for months at a time to go to practice. It’s more than just practice though, it’s the weekends full of travel, fundraising and even the off ice activities our team partakes in to maintain permanent club status.”
If you are a Division I or even III schools it’s pretty easy to get players to come out and play for the team. It’s not a tough sell when you are able to send the head coach or assistant coach out to watch players all over the country - and then offer them a scholarship.
At UB the players are the recruiters. The players can be seen at the Northtowns Center with a table set up during high school games or nationals trying to get their message across about how great it is to play for the University at Buffalo.
They aren’t just selling the academic side of the school, which a lot of people know - especially in the WNY area. They are also trying to sell their program. Selling all the success they have had over the past couple of years.
The players are selling a culture, a livelihood. They are selling how great it is to get a top notch education at a school like UB while competing in one of the best Club Leagues in the country. Norton and the rest of the girls are part student, part player and part sales person.
“If incoming students want to play it's easy. We do have transfers this year, also an easy sell for them,” stated Lauber. “The players have a leadership group that attends all the school functions and recruits there. Last year we set up a table at the Northtown Center where the USA Tier 1 & 2 State Championships were held, players had information available and had the trophies and banners on display.”
As they say success breads success and the Bulls have certainly seen that happen. The numbers have been up for the Bulls and the fans are packing the seats as they get behind this group of girls.
The players appreciate all the support as well. While the are putting in a huge commitment on and off the ice so are their families. Their families are traveling a long way sometime just to watch them play over a weekend.
“It’s huge. It’s really exciting to see more and more people coming to our games, whether it’s family or friends,” stated Norton. “It sets a tone for our team, it’s a lot of fun when a crowd is cheering us on. In my opinion, it gives us a little bit more of an edge knowing that people are there to see us compete.”
Competing is something that Norton has been doing since she stepped foot on campus four years ago. A goaltender in high school, Norton has been the leading force for the Bulls as they look to make a run a Nationals.
She is the captain of this team and the players definitely look up to here. On this morning practice she was the one out there running drills and making sure players were doing what they needed to be doing to be successful.
As practice was over, Norton was still out on the ice shooting around, working on her game. Being an ambassador of the game, she even took time to sit and talk to the media for close to an hour even though she knew she had to get to class.
She loves this team and program - and it shows.
“Maddie is the straw that stirs the drink, no question. I have full confidence that she can contribute in any role including defense and if need be in goal. I have coached her and against her, she did play goaltender for her high school team for four years. As our Captain, she runs the power play and takes a regular shift and when we're short a player she will rotate with another center every other shift. Offensive force, maybe takes the occasional five minute shift but she's moving the whole time,” stated Lauber. “She's our Captain and she leads by example on and off the ice. A quiet person, she isn't a vocal type of leader but more of a "follow me into battle" type. I can recall tight games where she basically takes over the play and wills the team to step up and go the extra mile. She has respect in the room and it's easy to relay instructions and strategy thru her, she may have an opinion that she expresses and usually it's right. She'll make a great coach if she chooses that path.”
Right now all this team is worried about it making it back to Dallas, Texas. Because of their schedule, the Bulls played a lot of games during the first half of the semester. The second half has been light in games, which means practice and staying focused is important.
But, this is a group that has been there before. They know what it takes to win it all. For Norton and the crew taking home a championship is all that matters.
“Going out with a bang would be winning the CHE playoffs and making it to the ACHA nationals, and to put the cherry on top, winning that as well. That’s our common end goal, I don’t think anyone on the team can argue that,” stated Norton. “It would also be really cool to see the girls on our team get recognized by the ACHA for their talent. We have a ton of talent on our team and it shouldn’t go unnoticed.”