Since the beginning of the semester, Hillsdale’s newest sports team, the hockey club, has played four games — winning three and losing one — in a men’s league in Jackson.
Sophomore Zach Niebolt, the president of the club, tried to start a team last year, but only recruited around 10 players. Last semester, he met freshman Ben Hanson who also tried to start a hockey team. Combined, Niebolt and Hanson had the necessary amount of students needed to start a club.
The team plays in an intermediate men’s league, known as a “beer league,” in Jackson every Tuesday night. It also practices once per week at a local alumnus’s personal ice rink.
Initially, Niebolt said, the club faced some issues getting off the ground.
“The idea behind club sports is that it’s supposed to be a varsity team without scholarships, and it’s not officially affiliated with the college,” he said. “But you’re still supposed to play in an intercollegiate division.”
Hillsdale’s location made this difficult. Nearby colleges like Spring Arbor and Albion don’t have club teams, according to Niebolt, so the team’s only opportunity would be playing Division 1 club teams like the University of Michigan or Michigan State University.
“Those teams have guys who were just barely cut from Division 1 college hockey,” he said. “We’d get destroyed.”
Niebolt remembered that the college’s club baseball team plays in a men’s league and used that to fight for the hockey club. Eventually, the administration allowed it, and Niebolt found a league in Jackson that the team could join.
To the team’s surprise, it won its first game 5 – 4.
“We couldn’t play cohesively as a team and our line changes were pretty poor,” Niebolt said.
During the game, the team received two different penalties for having six skaters on the ice.
Junior Ben Weide, who has played hockey since he was little, said the team relied on individual talent during its first game.
“We had no structure. We couldn’t get out of our own zone. We relied a lot on speed and breakaways,” he said.
Since then, the team has used its practice time to develop its own style, line changes, and gameplay.
“In the last couple games, we’ve started possessing the puck and passing more,” Weide said. “It’s nice to finally develop our game into something that resembles hockey.”
With a good base of individual talent, Niebolt also said he noticed the team coming together over the last few weeks.
“We’ve been building up the team dynamic and cohesiveness after we have that good individual talent,” he said.
Niebolt also played since he was young and continued through high school. Coming to Hillsdale, he thought there would be at least some hockey “up here in the frozen north,” but was disappointed when there weren’t a lot of games. “So I decided to take some initiative,” he said.
Most of the players on the team have played hockey before. Sophomore Ryan Perkins, who serves as the vice president of the hockey club, noted that about 75% of the team has played competitively in the past. Others, he said, have played only pond hockey or recreationally.
“Coming out here, I was very interested in Hillsdale, but having no hockey team was a huge bummer,” Perkins said. “The interest for everyone on our team has been that we’ve been playing hockey our whole lives and we don’t wanna stop now. So any opportunity we have, we’re going to take.”
Weide, who is from the Detroit area, agreed with Perkins. Until now, Weide periodically drove home just to play with friends at a drop-in session or in a beer league.
“The chance to play on a regular basis is something I hadn’t been able to do, and I really miss that,” Weide said.
Currently, the team has a wide range of talent. Perkins and Niebolt agreed that getting the lines figured out across skill levels was a significant challenge, but that everyone is getting to know each other and their individual play styles better.
“We understand how each other plays now,” senior Brittany Loomis said. “I can predict where my forwards will be and our forwards can predict where our defense will be.”
Loomis plays defense for the team. She’s the only woman playing for Hillsdale and one of three in the Jackson beer league. Before coming to Hillsdale, Loomis played for advanced teams like Compuware, Belle Tire, and even the USA girl’s development program.
So far, Loomis said she is impressed with how quickly the team has come together. Before joining, she felt anxious about playing regularly with all men — something she hasn’t done since she was nine years old.
“I found out there were guys who have never really skated competitively before, so that kind of calmed my anxiety about it a little bit,” Loomis said.
Eventually, teammates started asking Loomis for help learning different skills because of her experience.
“Last week I scored my first goal,” Loomis said. “I turned around and saw all the guys cheering for me. If I’m getting a hard time from the other team on the ice, my team will be there for me. They call me the token girl on the team, so that’s been a great bonding experience, just knowing they’re gonna have my back.”
Niebolt said the team is always looking to expand the program and incorporate new players. In addition, the team will sell jerseys later this month to help fund its operations.
“I’ve been super impressed and I think we’re all confident that we’ll be able to grow as a team,” Perkins said. “Hopefully, in the future, we’ll be able to play in better leagues.”