Cal another worthy college hockey alternative
When people think of the University of California, Berkeley, the first thing that usually comes to mind is its exceptional academic standards.
It’s certainly not hockey.
But when Nic Kawasaki started applying to colleges across the country, he took notice that one of the institutions he was thinking about spending the next four years at – Cal – would provide the opportunity to continue his playing career.
Cal demands academic excellence, requiring a 4.0-plus grade point average for those admitted. Yet here was Kawasaki, a gifted student who could have applied and been accepted into most schools, choosing his for the Golden Bears’ American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) program.
“My goal was to keep playing hockey, at least at the ACHA level,” said Kawasaki. “Probably my favorite thing over the last four years has been the ability to keep playing competitively.”
Competitive hockey is exactly what the Golden Bears, an ACHA Division II program, are trying to sell. Cal plays in the PAC-8, which is composed of teams from the vaunted Pac-12 conference. The intense battles the conference brings across all sports are not lost on the hockey rink.
“It’s always a big game when we play one of the three California schools in Stanford, UCLA and USC,” Golden Bears captain Jeff Leong said. “I think that really translates to people who come to our games; they get really excited. The fans have good school spirit, and it’s definitely something that transfers over to hockey here.”
Head coach Jeff Slusarz agrees, calling the opportunity to compete in the heated PAC-8 rivalries a perk players mull over when considering Cal.
“These are all top-notch universities with great sports programs,” he said. “It’s the opportunity to play hockey out here and play some world-class universities; I think that opportunity alone is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
The Golden Bears understand there are no easy games in the PAC-8. Slusarz’s team is seeing a surge in his second year as coach. Cal owned an eight-game winning streak following a pair of home victories against UCLA earlier this month at Oakland Ice Center. The Golden Bears are 4-0 against UCLA this year.
Kawasaki, an assistant captain on the team, says the benefits of playing in the ACHA include the continued chance to play in meaningful games. The senior is looking forward to such contests after the Golden Bears were dismissed in the first round of the playoffs twice in his first three seasons.
“It’d be huge to make a serious run, which the whole team believes we can do,” Kawasaki said. “We’re showing it right now with the way we’re playing. It’d be really special, and it’d be a great way to end my hockey career.”
Although the amount of time students can play for their college is finite, Leong has given each of his players an off-ice responsibility to ensure they stay connected to the team. C.J. Geering handles the team’s Web site, while others contribute in administrative and managerial capacities.
“We implemented an entire new officer structure,” Leong said of the team’s plans to keep all the players involved. “We try to have everyone who plays on the team also have an administrative role, whether that be in charge of social media, or Webmaster like C.J. We try to get everyone involved outside of the rink as much as possible.”
Some of the alumni continue to make a major impact. Assistant coach Mark Arneson played for Cal from 1984-88 and continues to help raise the awareness of the Golden Bears organization to players in the area.
“Mark is very tight within the local hockey community, and he’s constantly promoting the Cal ice hockey program,” Slusarz said. “The students have to get admitted into the university first, but he’s very much an ambassador of the team in the Bay Area.”
– Andrew Turner