Cal ice hockey skating towards growth and aspirations

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When UC Berkeley is mentioned, people usually don’t associate the school with athletics at first, and even when they do, ice hockey doesn’t tend to be at the forefront of the conversation.

Well, the Bears do in fact have a hockey team. And it is good — really good.

Exactly one week ago, Cal hockey took on Stanford in the annual Big Freeze, putting on a clinic at the Oakland Ice Center en route to an 11-0 shutout.

In front of a crowd of more than 800 fans, including newly re-elected Mayor of Oakland Libby Schaaf, the Bears were firing on all cylinders. Apart from the blizzard of goals on the ice, the event featured many fan interactions — part of the program’s overall plan to increase exposure and popularity.

This plan was in full effect throughout the contest, as fans were hyped up by Oski and Cal cheerleaders during the onslaught. There were also contests to incentivize fan attendance, including prizes as part of a center-ice shooting competition.

“It was a pretty good fan atmosphere — everyone really enjoyed it,” said junior goaltender Sami Morse. “It’s always nice to see your team beating the other team by 11 goals. We had a really good time.”

The Bears have continued their winning ways this season, blasting off to an 11-2 start. After Cal, as the No. 1 seed, fell victim to an Arizona State comeback in the Pac-8 Championship finals last season, the team’s sights are set on revenge this winter.

“The next goal this year is to win the league tournament and make regionals,” Morse said.

With a roster of 24 players, the team features many Californians, four players who were born in Canada and a fair share of East Coast representatives. Apart from being hockey players, though, they are regular students who do not have the perks and benefits given to typical NCAA student-athletes.

Though they have to practice in Oakland and are constantly traveling around California for competitions, the players remain focused in the classroom.

“Overall, the team is pretty academically oriented,” Morse said. “It’s really good to have people there and … to go get class advice from.”

As of now, the team competes in a hockey league known officially as the Pac-8. Though it was originally composed only of traditional Pac-12 schools, this is the first year in which outside schools have been allowed to join, giving the league 12 teams in total.

While Cal traditionally performs near or at the top of the Pac-8, the Bears’ aspirations shine much further. Their long-term goal: to eventually become an NCAA program.

Currently, the only West Coast team to play in the NCAA is Arizona State, which is currently in its fourth season as a Division I program. ASU still fields a club team, which Cal will compete against in January, and its Division I team became ranked for the first time in history this past week.

“We are trying to model our route after them,” Morse said in reference to the Arizona State program.

Part of accomplishing this includes working with Cal Athletic Director Jim Knowlton, who was a four-year varsity hockey player at Army West Point. Additionally, the team is working to schedule more games against quality opponents and raise awareness of the program in general.

One way it currently does so is through the annual Try Hockey for Free events, which are sponsored by USA Hockey.

“You’re teaching little kids how to play hockey for the first time. … It’s a really good experience and makes you proud to play for the program,” Morse said.

In regard to when an NCAA promotion could happen, there are no guarantees.

“I don’t know if you can set a timeline on it,” Morse said. “There’s so many variables you have to consider.”

While the future of Cal Ice Hockey is undoubtedly bright, right now the focus remains on closing out the first half of the season strong and preparing to enter the final stretch after winter break. At the 2019 edition of the Pac-8 Championships in Tahoe, the Bears’ only focus is on erasing the sting of last season’s defeat and bringing a trophy back home to Berkeley.

Shailin Singh is an assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].