Club Ice Hockey sets sights on harder competition

Mariah Reneau, A&C Editor

On any given Wednesday during the cold winter months of Boone, sophomore accounting major Karst Bouma gets to campus at 10 a.m., attends classes all day and then goes to his fraternity meeting from 6-7 p.m. When his fraternity brothers go home, Bouma gets in a car with his teammates at 7:30 p.m. and drives to Winston-Salem, for the only available ice time for the App State club ice hockey team.

The App State club ice hockey team was created in 1997 and allows players of different skill levels to compete in over 10 games per season, according to the team’s website. Because there isn’t an ice rink in Boone or the surrounding area for hockey, the team travels once per week to practice for 1 1/2 hours in Winston-Salem.

“Last year we used to go Tuesdays and Thursdays to Sugar Mountain for an hour-long practice, but the ice was literally the size of a tennis court, and it didn’t have glass either, so we would lose several pucks,” Bouma said. “We couldn’t really run an organized practice there and this season, since we got a lot of new guys and better guys, we actually made it to playoffs and we’re starting to take it more seriously.”

By the time these college students have driven to the rink in Winston-Salem, practiced, showered, stopped to buy Cook Out trays and come home, it’s 2 a.m. The long drives each week, while tedious, create a strong bond between the players of one of App State’s lesser-known club sport teams.

“I remember last year as a freshman coming in, I didn’t say a word on the first ride, but after the practice, I was talking the whole time,” Bouma said. “It was 11 p.m. and some guys had 8 a.m. classes the next day, but it was always nice to just get done with school and go out and play ice hockey for fun.”

Each season, team members pay $800 to play hockey. This fee doesn’t cover everything the team needs. Team members often pay additional money for gas and hotels, said assistant coach Emily Claire, senior exercise science major.

The fee does pay for game ice, game transportation, hotels, jerseys and socks, but it doesn’t cover any equipment, so players have to have their own, Bouma said.

“For youth hockey, dues would be like $3,000 or something,” Bouma said. “For us, it’s only $800, which is insanely cheap for a whole year for ice hockey.”

The barriers to play hockey have taken a toll on the team. At the beginning of the season, the team started with 30 players, but by the end, the number was down to 19, Claire said.

“Hockey is one of those sports that you just have such a passion for,” Claire said. “When you grow up in this environment, where so little people play it, you just feel really special playing it, and it’s hard to stop playing it.”

The club ice hockey team isn’t allowed to cut any members from the team, according to App State Club Sports.

“We have guys on the team who just got equipment and just learned to skate, and we’ve got guys on the team who have played AA or AAA hockey, which is the highest tier for younger hockey,” sophomore marketing major Joseph Kromer said. “We learn off of each other and have fun doing it.”

Because of the diversity in skill level, the team decided this season to break the team up into a practice squad and game squad.

“Everyone gets game time, but for their own safety, you don’t want guys to get injured on your watch,” Bouma said. “You have guys who’ve played juniors hockey and there are guys who started out last week. With ice hockey, it’s really easy to see who hasn’t been playing long.”

In the 2019 season, the team saw massive improvements, having a winning record and making the playoffs.

“The freshmen we got this year were super talented, and they helped us a lot,” Kromer said.

The team is moving up next season to a league where they will begin playing teams such as UNC-Chapel Hill and High Point University, who are more skilled than former opponents and closer to home, Bouma said.

“I think this is a big step for us,” Bouma said. “We’re Division III hockey, so we like to take things seriously when game time comes, but at the end of the day, win or lose, we’re not too upset.”

With the increased focus on competition the team hopes to change its attitude.

“When I was in elementary school, the ice hockey team here was really good, and we won our division,” Bouma said. “I think we’re on that road again and it’s going to get a lot harder, more expensive and a bigger commitment. We’re all excited for it, but we’re also a little nervous too.”

As the team sees more success, it hopes to build a larger fan base.

“We’re in North Carolina and no one knows we have hockey here,” Claire said. “There’s not enough promotion, and we play in Winston-Salem, so it’s really hard to get fans out there. Sometimes we also have games that start at 11 p.m. in Winston Salem, so no fans want to go.”

Regardless of the barriers or the fans, the players who make up the team have dedicated many hours over a season to play the game they love with friends.

“The guys I meet with ice hockey are the guys I keep for the rest of my life,” Bouma said. “Obviously, I love the sport, but the main reason I’m still playing is because I’ve got the guys.”