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Uneasy times for junior college hockey world

March 15, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota is king when it comes to junior college hockey.

It’s just not a very big kingdom.

The two teams from North Dakota — the only junior college hockey teams west of the Great Lakes — have won six of the last eight National Junior College Athletic Association championships. Dakota College at Bottineau won four straight titles from 2007-2010 — the first two when the school was called Minot State University-Bottineau — and Williston State has won the last two.

The achievement is even more remarkable for Williston State, which has reached the title game every year since launching the program in 2011.

“We started with nothing. We started without a hockey stick or a hockey puck in the summer of 2011, and now here we are,” coach Seamus Gregory said. “It’s almost a rags-to-riches story.”

But the Tetons have not exactly had to conquer a lot of teams along the way.

Only eight junior college schools in the country had an active hockey team last season. And the team the Tetons beat the past two years — Monroe Community College of Brighton, N.Y. — has dropped the sport, after four straight years of playing in the title game.

“With the low number of hockey teams participating in the NJCAA and the high cost of funding the sport, the college can no longer justify sponsoring hockey,” athletic director Skip Bailey said in announcing the decision last November. “We have waited patiently for the number of teams to increase, but that has not happened.”

Because of the lack of competition, junior colleges have to fill their schedules with opponents ranging from club teams to higher-level colleges. Williston State has gone as far as British Columbia and Arizona to find suitable opponents, Gregory said. Stiff competition has helped build the successful program, he said. The Tetons also have tapped into the hockey hotbeds of Minnesota and Wisconsin to find talent, and also have recruited in Canada and as far west as Colorado.

“We made a decision back in 2011-12 that we’d bring in the best possible collegiate-caliber (players),” Gregory said. “It’s really paid off.”

Bottineau’s program touts its international flavor — it has alumni from Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Latvia, the Czech Republic and Canada — but the Lumberjacks have been hampered the past couple of years by a new NJCAA rule that limits teams to four international recruits, coach Travis Rybchinski said.

The team also had nearly a dozen North Dakota players one of the years it won the national title.

“We’re pretty solid,” Rybchinski said. “Next year will be our 39th of varsity competition. We have that steep tradition here that we’re proud of. I don’t think we have to worry about it (hockey) not being here. We just hope we can get some more teams on board.”

The NJCAA is working on that, said Mark Klug, the association’s assistant executive director. The group hopes to persuade some schools that have club hockey to start competing on the NJCAA varsity level.

But Klug acknowledged that junior college hockey is on thin ice, because association bylaws dictate that any sport that drops below eight participating members is at risk of being dropped. The NJCAA first will try to add programs — including some in the West — and then re-evaluate the situation in 2016.

“Making sure the health of the sport is where it needs to be,” Klug said. “If it’s not, it would have to be considered for elimination.”

Gregory and Rybchinski are aware of the threat but aren’t dwelling on it.

“There have been many schools tossing around the idea (of hockey) in the last year — Moorhead State (in Minnesota), Lake Region State (in North Dakota), several in Wyoming as well,” Gregory said. “There are many in Michigan and Minnesota that have been wondering if they can bring it back. It all comes down to money. You really have to dig deep.”

Both Williston State and Bottineau cite strong community and booster support as strengths of their programs, though Williston State declined to say how much booster money the program gets and Bottineau did not respond to a request for that information.

Gregory said he is focused on next season and a possible three-peat.

“Recruiting has played more into our success than funding,” he said. “We are losing some players, but we’ll be getting some in and we’ll be ready to go.”


Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake

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