Tiring practices, program hardships push UB men's ice hockey to first-ever NCHA Championship
Last week may have been the best week in UB Athletics history.
Of course the men and women’s basketball teams won Mid-American Conference titles and made NCAA Tournament appearances. Three members of the wrestling team went to New York City to participate in the NCAA Championships, sure. Senior swimmer Megan Burns made her national tournament and track and field alumnus Jon Jones was on display on the world circuit for shot-put as well.
We all know.
But many Bulls fans may not know that another Buffalo team claimed a championship last week.
The men’s ice hockey team defeated Penn State 4-2 this past Sunday to win its first-ever National Collegiate Hockey Association Championship.
“[It’s] real emotional,” said senior center Zach LaMacchia after the championship win. “It was one of the happier moments of my hockey career.”
While the team continues to celebrate the championship, the goal is to make last Sunday the start of something huge, rather than one singular moment. Buffalo coach Edd Kirchberger said he hopes he can “continue the run of success,” despite losing a handful of important seniors, including LaMacchia and Matt Cohen, both centers.
While the underclassmen continue to celebrate, it’s the seniors who truly enjoy the moment they worked four years for. It was a moment that the seniors, the first-ever class for the program, would never forget.
“As a part of the original crew that put this team together four years ago, it was overwhelming, seeing everyone jumping off the bench and throwing gloves into the air,” LaMacchia said.
The team, which is the Division-III component of Student Association’s men’s hockey club, was created just four seasons ago and already experienced a fair share of heartbreak. Three years ago, the Bulls made their first-ever national tournament, only to lose in the first round. Last season, as favorites, Buffalo lost in the final 15 seconds to Pittsburgh – ending their chance at a national championship.
LaMacchia, who was one of the original members of the team and assisted in putting the club together, said the scene as the final seconds ticked off the clock was emotional as the Bulls were officially announced as champions.
LaMacchia was the captain for the 2015-16 team and finished with 13 points, good for third on the team. In the playoffs, LaMacchia finished with two points. He said the team “made the right sacrifices and played hard,” allowing the Bulls to take a step forward as opposed to the previous seasons.
In his first season Kirchberger wanted to make sure his team could practice without the normal interruptions of school and work, so he set his practices for early in the morning – 5:30 a.m. to be exact. He said the reason he placed his practices early in the season was because “there was no reason for players to miss it.”
And to his – and the team’s – credit, no one did.
“Our practices are early because everyone’s school and work schedule and there wasn’t a reason people couldn’t make practice,” Kirchberger said. “I give them credit. Some of them got up and came to practice with no excuses. Some stayed up the night before working on a paper, or studying for a test, but they never let it affect their play.”
One player that didn’t let the early practice time affect him was Cohen. Cohen, who finished with one point in the postseason and four points in the regular season, called the championship victory “a long time coming.”
After years of coming up short as a member of the Bulls, Cohen was instrumental in Buffalo’s victory last Sunday, providing an assist, a key block on one of Penn State’s many scoring opportunities and perfect play on the penalty kill with junior right winger John Danovskis.
Cohen, who committed 19 years to the sport of hockey and perfecting his skills, said that he’s happy to finally have something to show that his hard work paid off.
“It starts early in the morning, you have to wake up and do that,” Cohen said. “We play games on Friday at 7 p.m. Not a lot of people on campus are willing to give up the social life. It’s really nice to see it all come to fruition and it all finally be worth it. Playing this game for 19 years. My entire life, I’ve been giving up proms and spring breaks and it’s just nice to have it all finally be worth it.”
One player return is sophomore goalie David Nowak. Nowak finished the regular season with 3-1-1 record in goal and just allowed eight goals on the season and scored two points of his own in 238 minutes of action. In the playoffs, Nowak went 4-1 and held Penn State to two goals and claimed tournament MVP.
Nowak, who will man the net next season, said he thinks the Bulls can do great things.
“We can do a ton of things, and we weren’t the top hockey team in the division,” Nowak said. “I think we can build the program up, continue to put together a great run of success, then maybe we can take it to the next level. It would be nice to become a NCAA program. Buffalo has the resources, and it would be great to be the team that started that program here at the university.”