UB men’s ice hockey reaches ACHA tournament for first time in over 10 years
Last season, the Buffalo men’s ice hockey team looked on in dismay as the selection committee omitted the Bulls from the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Tournament.
It’s understandable that the team was “apprehensive” this year during the selection process because of recent history. But this time around, the sounds of grunts and moans were traded for screams of eagerness and excitement when the team knew its season would be extended this year.
On Wednesday night, the Bulls (25-6-1) clinched the No.17 seed in the ACHA Men's Division I National Championships. The team has not made the tournament – which will be hosted at the OBM Arena in Strongsville, Ohio beginning on March 5 – in nearly 12 years.
“We’re all excited. The kids worked real hard,” said head coach Sal Valvo. “We feel like we deserved it from our record this year, but we’re not satisfied with just making it to the tournament …We’ve been in the top-20 all year, as high as No.14. The top-15 is real strong, but we feel like we’re in the place we deserve to be.”
The team’s first game in the ACHA Championships will be against No.16 Colorado.
Buffalo is currently No.1 in its conference, the Northeast Collegiate Hockey League (NECHL), with 51 points, and is riding a five-game winning streak heading into the final weekend of regular season play. Despite three regular season games remaining, it will not affect its No.17 seeding for the ACHA tournament.
But Buffalo still plans on using the weekend to prepare for the tournament.
“We have to get used to playing at a quicker speed,” Valvo said. “This weekend, the teams were playing are quick. We need to play [at a] higher pace to compete with the teams out west. If we defeat Colorado, we have to play Arizona State, which has been the No. 1 team in the country for three years running.”
Valvo credits the entire team for the successful season, but specifically points out the upperclassman leaders of the team. Senior forward Brenden Robinson is second on the team with 40 points and is tied for the team lead with 16 goals on the season. Junior defenseman Sean Dungan is second on the team with 25 assists, while senior goalkeeper Tyler Stark holds a 12-4 record in the net this year.
But Valvo is also impressed with the underclassmen, especially sophomore forward Bobby Piotrowicz. The sophomore leads all players with 42 points on 16 goals and 26 assists.
But the road to getting to the tournament wasn’t an easy one for the Bulls.
The ACHA – a non-profit organization that regulates low-budget ice hockey teams across the nation – is not a partner with the NCAA. And because the team is not a varsity program, it is not associated with UB Athletics and players don’t receive scholarships.
Most funds comes from the Student Association and whatever money the team raises by itself. If it weren’t for the team’s constrained budget, Valvo said the team could have achieved an even higher ranking.
“Funding and scheduling are our biggest issues, and they go hand in hand,” Valvo said. “In order to be one of the top-ranked teams, you have to play the top-ranked teams. It’s hard for us to play teams like Arizona St. and Oklahoma; those are the top teams in the country.”
Valvo said the biggest change he’s seen with the program since he took over five years ago is the increase in talent.
“We struggled to get our name out there,” Valvo said. “Sometimes, when you say club hockey, people have the wrong impression. We made it a point to get recruits to games to let them see what type of level we are. Once we get them out to a game, it changes their whole perspective on things.”
Valvo said it is difficult to recruit players because it is hard to convince them to be part of a club team that cannot offer scholarships or usual perks of a Division I athlete. He said the team uses the school and its “economic standard” in order to recruit prospective players to the team.
He said the prosperity of the university is a selling point because what they can’t offer in money, they “offer a good and quality education with UB.”
Buffalo will play in the NECHL Championships from Feb. 20-22. The Bulls are expected to arrive in Ohio on March 4 after practicing for the ACHA tournament for roughly one week. The team’s first game against No.16 Colorado on March 5 is set to begin at 4 p.m.