Tuesday, January 30, 2024
The end of the 2023-24 season will be one to remember for the men’s Ice Hockey Club at San Diego State University, being that it was only their second year as a Division I (DI) team in the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA).
The team, which is one of 22 collegiate sports club teams operated by Aztec Recreation, a program of Associated Students, started in 1972 in Division III. Later, they moved up to Division II. In November 2021, the team was able to register as a DI league club.
“Competition has been a lot more fun,” said Luke Desmarais, Alumni Ambassador and a member of the team. “Last year it was kind of just like getting through games, seeing how fast we can get without getting scored on as much, but this year is a lot more fun.”
Phillip Bateman, head coach, indicates the team made the request to move up from Division II to DI, as they were ready for more challenging competition and atmosphere.
“After talking about it for a year and going through the application process … the team decided that it was a jump we wanted to make,” Bateman said.
The team welcomes home-grown talent as well as international players that come to SDSU to combine their dream of pursuing a higher education with their passion for ice hockey.
This year's team includes a total of 29 players, 20 of them are first-year students.
“I think there's something valuable that they're able to grow together,” Bateman said about the younger players on the team. “It's a very tight knit group that's kind of growing together, going through the lumps together and finding their success together, which is again, long term. So it's worth investing in.”
“We have some really good local talent that grew up playing here within California as close as Chula Vista,” Bateman said. “And then as we've talked about, [we’re] bringing in kids to come and play … supporting a lot of international kids and a lot of local kids.”
SDSU Ice Hockey has welcomed players from all around the world including Sweden, Germany and Austria. This year, the team includes eight Canadians — nine including Bateman, who is from Toronto.
“Ironically, last year's recruiting process was really helped out from a brand perspective by the success of the basketball program because it was constantly on TV,” said Bateman. “Suddenly, everyone started to look at San Diego State and then a lot of the recruits wanted to piggyback on wearing that brand and wearing the SDSU logo.”
That was the case for player Max Kathol, originally from Alberta, Canada. He recalls traveling to San Diego on Thanksgiving 2022 to watch SDSU’s hockey team. He said the game drew only a few spectators due to the holiday but the experience inspired him to apply to SDSU.
His dream of getting a college degree while playing hockey in sunny southern California came true. He was admitted to SDSU and named a starter on the team.
“The ultimate goal is to play hockey and go to school,” said Kathol. “I came to SDSU with that idea in mind. It would be awesome if I could move on after hockey but that’s not really my main goal, right now I want to focus on my school.”
SDSU Ice Hockey player Luke Desmarais reacts with the crowd during a home match at the KROC Center Ice Arena. (Megan Ellis/SDSU Hockey)
The SDSU Aztecs pack the rink with nearly 700 fans — nearly 300 of which are students — to watch their home matches at the KROC Center Ice Arena, about three miles south of campus on University Avenue. Most of their marketing is done on Instagram where they have over 12,000 followers. This season, the team will host a handful of competitive and well-funded DI hockey programs such as Colorado University, Arizona State University and Oregon.
Bateman describes an infectious atmosphere and energy in the student section that wraps almost halfway around the rink.
“The student body that does come down to our game always loves it,” Bateman said about the fan experience at the arena. “They're loud. The visiting teams always mention how much fun they have here because of the atmosphere that's created.”
This season was certainly a pivotal moment for the hockey players and an escalating point in the history of the team, and fan support continues to grow. The team is looking to continue existing partnerships and build new relationships with businesses who want to support the team through donations and sponsorships.
SDSU takes a 5-11-1 record into its final weeks of the season, four more wins over last season’s 1-20-1 first year ACHA DI record. But it is not over yet. The team will play four home games before the 2023-24 season ends.
“As the years go, we'll keep adding more and more home games,” said Bateman. “That's just more opportunity for fans to kind of come down to the park and watch us and speak about the home games.”