USF Ice Bulls Play for Fun but Seek Fans
When Matthew Meyer tells people he plays hockey for the USF Ice Bulls, he usually gets the same questions.
"'Does USF really have a hockey team?' or 'How do you play hockey in Florida?' Something of that nature," the senior accounting major and team captain said. "Usually my answer is, you know, 'Hockey can be played anywhere, and it’s not like you’re playing outside.'"
As a matter of fact, the Ice Bulls have been playing for 25 years.
But the reason you probably haven’t heard of the team is because, at USF, hockey is classified as a "club sport."
“Every student on campus, when they register for classes, has a fee that goes towards organizations run by students, and the club sports program is a part of that," according to USF Ice Bulls university advisor Eric Soncrant.
More than 40 sports get similar "club" treatment, including lacrosse, bowling, and rugby.
“A lot of the sports you see go to the club program are sports that either can’t be funded for financial reasons, don’t fit into the geographic footprint of the university, and they just haven’t been added as a club sport or as an NCAA sport at this point in time," Soncrant said.
As a result, players have to pick up a sizable portion of their expenses themselves.
“Each player can pay up to $1500 to 2000 a year," Meyer said. "But we all know what the circumstances are, we all are familiar with the finances that come with the season, how expensive a season can be, I mean, hockey’s a pretty expensive sport."
To Soncrant, such a financial commitment truly demonstrates the student-athletes’ devotion.
“It shows they have a huge passion for their sport, to not only commit the time and the energy to practice and compete, but then also to take money out of their own pockets to help fund the program," he said.
In addition to the expenses, fan turnout is sparse. That’s due mainly to the fact that most Ice Bulls’ home games are played at the Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex, about fifty miles south of USF’s Tampa campus.
On the Saturday afternoon we came out, a few dozen passionate fans, mostly parents and friends of team members, huddled in the stands. Alex Miller is an Ice Bull goalie.
“So that’s a little bit of a challenge for us, trying to get geared up for these games without as many fans. With more fans, the more pumped you are to play,” said the junior accounting major.
Assistant Coach Larry Silvers agreed.
"It’s very real for them, all the players that are on there, it’s very real for them for that sixty minutes," Silver said. "And most people would really enjoy, they’d be pleasantly surprised how much fun it is to come out and root for your team."
The Ice Bulls have had opportunities to play on larger stages. Last year, a road trip took them to NCAA Division 1 arenas in Michigan, and the NHL strike allowed them to play two games in the Tampa Bay Times Forum on the same ice as the Lightning.
“We had a pretty good fan crowd there that game; it was a lot of fun," Miller said. "It’s incredible knowing that all these NHL players stepped on the ice that you’re on, it’s cool. Especially because I grew up watching the Lightning my whole life; always been a huge fan of them."
The Ice Bulls play at the Division 3 level of the American Collegiate Hockey Association, one of 140 teams in four regions across the country. Not too many players at that level are going to make it to the NHL, but for the players and their coaches, that's not the ultimate goal.
“It’s not so stringent on that winning isn’t the all-end result," Silvers said. "It’s nice to win and everything, but watching these guys grow together as a team and become lifelong friends, which is what happens to a lot of these guys, that’s nice for a coach to see.”
“We all like to have a good time," Meyer added. "I like to go hang out with the guys and stuff, it’s more of having 20 friends, 20 best friends around the school that you can always hang out with.”
"I love playing; it’s my life," Miller said. "I couldn’t imagine not playing hockey. So whatever I can do to play hockey, I’m going to play."
In the game we saw, the Ice Bulls beat UCF 4-2. It was the first time they knocked off the South Region’s number one ranked team in three years, and kick-started their current 6 game winning streak (14-17-1 on the season).
The Ice Bulls wrap up the regular season with games against Florida Gulf Coast on February 7th (in Ellenton at 9 p.m.) and 8th (at Germain Arena in Estero at 6 p.m.), before finding out if they’ve qualified for the ACHA Divison 3 playoffs.