Vanderbilt hockey: From forfeits to force in the Southeast

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Vanderbilt hockey: From forfeits to force in the Southeast

The Vanderbilt Club Hockey Team take the ice at Bridgestone Arena (Bosley Jarrett)

The Vanderbilt Club Hockey Team take the ice at Bridgestone Arena (Bosley Jarrett)

The Vanderbilt Club Hockey Team take the ice at Bridgestone Arena (Bosley Jarrett)

The Vanderbilt Club Hockey Team take the ice at Bridgestone Arena (Bosley Jarrett)

Cutler Klein, Sports Editor

The Vanderbilt Club Ice Hockey team was on the brink of collapse in 2010. The team couldn’t hold down a coach or a consistent roster, the SEC Hockey Conference had placed them on probation for two years, and after canceling on some road games due to roster issues, the league was threatening to suspend and banish them from the conference.

Just six years later, that same Commodores program hosted the rest of the conference at the 2016 SECHC Tournament at the Nashville Predators’ Ford Ice Center, and two weeks later, went on to clinch a spot in the American Collegiate Hockey Association Division Three Nationals by winning the South Regional tournament.

Former Vanderbilt goaltender Brenden Oliver, who suited up for the program from 2008-12, said the team was mere hours from being banished by the SEC for forfeiting too many times before a whirlwind road trip to Arkansas.

“There was a Friday afternoon where we had a road trip planned to play Arkansas in Fayetteville,” Oliver said. “It was hard finding five skaters to make the trip down. We had everyone’s gear thrown into two suburbans. We got down there two hours late, but we showed up and played with no substitutions at all. We got slaughtered in both games, but we made it through the weekend and were able to keep the program alive.”

At that point, the players had enough. They needed a new direction for the program, so the program brought in Thomas Bernstein, a former club hockey player at Cornell and local businessman, to be their head coach. Immediately, Bernstein wanted to change the attitude and outlook for Vanderbilt Hockey.

“The key to getting the program off the ground,” Bernstein said, “was helping the kids understand that the program was theirs to run, that they had the resources at their disposal to create something special if they wanted to,” he said.

However, it took a little time for Bernstein to instill a sense of pride and a winning drive in his team.

“At that time, they didn’t want to take it very seriously, they just wanted to have fun,” Bernstein said. “So we started off by asking a simple question: Is it important to win? Some of the guys said ‘No, it’s not that important to win.’ Others said, ‘Sure, yeah, we want to win.’ But, that’s where we started. Now, if you ask everybody, they’ll say it’s very important to win.”

Senior Chad Wyatt said that the team was a “ragtag group” during his freshman year and recalled yet another shorthanded roadtrip.

“We went up to Louisville towards the end of the first semester, and for the first game, we had about 12 guys, which was normal at the time,” he said. “Then literally half the team left, and we still had another game the next night, so we were calling everybody up the next morning, asking them to come up to Louisville for this game at 5 PM. We ended up getting two more players. We got blown out, but it was just one of those things that represented what the club was like.”

Andrew Dellapina, a junior forward, said that the team competed in his first years on the team, but didn’t quite have the drive to play as a unit.

“We were playing decent teams and playing good games, but we didn’t have any predetermined goals, things we wanted to accomplish before the end of the season,” he said. “Guys were just out there to play hockey. Since then, it’s been a lot more focus on what we want to do.”

With the coach and the attitude in place, the next step was to build an awareness of the team. Coverage on Penalty Box Radio helped build a fanbase, while a move to the Ford Ice Center has drawn these fans to games.

“We’ve tried to do a good job of drumming up fan support and making it fun to go to,” Dellapina said. “Ford Ice has been a huge help. They make it real easy for fans to get there and they have great discounts on food and drinks. It’s been a great atmosphere to play games in. We’ve definitely had some great fan support this season.”

The Commodores are on their way to ACHA Nationals for the first time in their 40-year history, and the team is more legitimate and more talented than ever. Oliver still hangs around the team, despite graduating way back in 2012. He does the scoreboard for home games simply because he wants to.

“I just love this team,” he said. “I was president my junior and senior year, and the relationships that I’ve formed with all the guys on the team at the time, and the camaraderie behind it, it’s something you don’t want to let go of.”

Senior defenseman Zach Satin said that their bid to Nationals is the result of a lot of hard work from a lot of different people.

“Going to Nationals is an amazing experience and means a lot to the club,” he said. “It’s a huge step forward and speaks volumes to the work that the players and coaches put into the organization.”

As some of the players acknowledged, they’re proud of the way the club has grown, but have not lost sight of what the club is: a player-led organization that is meant to be fun.

“The important thing is that we’ve been successful without losing sight of having fun,” Dellapina said. “Our regional trip last weekend, we had as much fun as we ever have. At the same time, we accomplished something that the club had never done before. Every year, the new guys that come in are adding to that, and it’s definitely made a huge difference.”

“Even for this level, a lot of teams have general managers, and their coaches make a lot of decisions,” said Jack Gibbons, a senior forward. “Vanderbilt is really a team-run club. The players make the decisions. I think it’s been great to see the growth of the club over the past four years. If you told me when I joined as a freshman that we would have a bid to nationals by my senior year, I would have said you were crazy. It’s been a fun ride.”

This team has come a long way from the near-ruined team in 2010, and in just six years’ time, the players, coaches and media have built a program that is to be reckoned with in the Southeast. The most important thing that Bernstein notes, however, is the pride that comes with the program. Vanderbilt’s team is a cohesive unit.

“Every year is different, but there’s a camaraderie and a sense of family amongst each and every person on this team now that is very special and I think everyone is very proud of. I know I’m extremely proud of it.”

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