Column: Tim Gassen weighs in on Wildcat hockey's future and culture
UA hockey begins their season against Grand Canyon University on Friday, Sept. 9 at the Tucson Convention Center.
Last week, “Inside the Glass”, an hour program on KAMP student radio, had the honor of interviewing special guest Arizona Hockey Media Director, Tim Gassen. Gassen, known as “AZPuckMan,” has been following UA hockey for more than thirty years. He had plenty of insight on not only the dynamic of the team, but about the growth of hockey in Arizona as well.
Last week Orion Olsen was named captain of the team, which was a move Gassen applauded immensely.
“They picked the absolute best guy. Orion Olsen is a fine, fine hockey player,” Gassen said. “He’s a very mature athlete and student.”
Olsen fits the role well as the team only has about half a roster of returning players, so his leadership will guide the team as it find its identity yet again. Gassen explained it’s normal for ACHA teams to have to reinvent themselves and their culture every season as new faces roll in.
Tightening up the defense is also something the team needs to work on. Last season, the team lost games due to being too aggressive on the puck and letting the opposition slip by and get on odd-man rushes; the team’s size and strength were also a large factor. Gassen called last season’s team a “really, really large college hockey team” with most players over six-foot and weighing in over 210 lbs. This season, the team is considerably lighter and will hope to cool down their aggressive tactics.
It’s not as if the team lacks staples on defense. Gassen’s dark-horse player for the season is sophomore Manny Rowe. There’s plenty to love about Rowe – especially his old-school hockey flow.
“[Rowe] knows how to push the puck and has the defensive focus the coach wants,” Gassen said.
The Phoenix native was nominated by his teammates last season as rookie of the year after tallying 15 points (9g, 6a). Gassen says Rowe will only get better and will be an all-star in this league.
As defense solidifies this year, so oes goaltending. Before roster cuts, the team had, according to Gassen, three solid goaltenders — something NCAA Division I teams would be jealous of. After the cuts that came Monday, Sept. 18, two remain: Austin Wilson and Novan Bivolcic. Wilson will be a senior this year and likely become the starterdue to his experience. However, Gassen says to not doubt freshman Bivolcic because he’s got the skill to push Wilson and challenge him for the starting position. Any previous worries about goal tending should be gone.
Overall, the roster is also seeing a rise in players from Arizona; a total of nine players on the roster are from Arizona, mainly the Phoenix valley. This is an obvious mark of the growth of a sport that is still believed to have no place outside of the Northeast United States and Canada. While it’s important to get recruits coming from out of state, it’s not necessarily a problem that, as Gassen said, really talented local kids are joining local ACHA teams. Unfortunately, not all of them come to Tucson — some go to Phoenix to play for rival ASU.
As of recent years, the Sun Devils have posted solid stats, which puts more pressure on Arizona to find its identity and chemistry fast so they can get the ‘W’ when ASU comes to town for the second game of the season.
The ‘Cats main focus will be on ASU, which will be a guaranteed hurdle the Wildcats have to clear in order to get to the National Tournament this season.
Last season the Wildcats managed to get under the skin of ASU in its final two games. Considering Arizona has changed its look and gone for smaller players, it will be interesting to see if the team can manage to still frustrate ASU on the ice.
The success on the ice is important, but its economic success is equally as important. The sport is growing in Arizona with more and more rinks popping up — but not in Tucson. Aside from the Tucson Convention Center, there are no other sheets of ice in the area. Furrthermore, since the Tucson Roadrunners came to town last year, the rink has to host two teams — so there’s not a lot of time to share.
Gassen finds the two teams competing for ice time to be detrimental to the Wildcats. The Roadrunners schedule takes up prime time for games and leaves Arizona taking 2 p.m. games in the middle of the week to avoid conflicts. To avoid this, Gassen calls for two arenas, an idea that has been kicked around by the city of Tucson for a couple years now. Ideally, a smaller arena would be built and would be the new home of the Wildcat hockey team.
But until then, the Wildcats will call the TCC home and will start their new season Friday, Sept. 29 against Grand Canyon University. And if you’re on the fence about going to a game or not, Tim Gassen had this to say: “Folks, kids, my fellow alumni, you need to come to UA hockey games — we need you.”
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