Creating a competitive ice hockey program from scratch is not an easy undertaking in normal circumstances. But how about during a worldwide pandemic?
When Long Island University made their Varsity Ice Hockey program announcement back in late April, the world was beginning to feel the ill-effects of the novel coronavirus. However, LIU was persistent in doing what they had to do to ensure this program could begin as intended.
The first order of business was to find a suitable candidate to take the helm behind the bench. It took less than a month before Long Island University hired Brett Riley to be the team’s head coach. Riley had been in a similar situation before, as he helped Division III Wilkes University launch their Men’s Ice Hockey program back in 2018.
After his first season concluded, his achievements spoke volumes.
Coaching to a 16-8-2 record, Riley would take home the United Collegiate Hockey Coach of the Year Award. Three of his players received All-Mac Accolades, with one player receiving a nominee for Rookie of the Year. Off the ice, his team had a combined 3.44 GPA.
Now, Riley is looking to produce similar results at LIU.
The build starts today. pic.twitter.com/jNLmTRnRqB
— LIU Hockey (@LIUMHockey) September 21, 2020
The biggest draw for the 29-year-old coach was the ability to quite literally start from scratch.
“I had done the Division III level,” Riley said during an interview with NYI Hockey Now. “And it was addicting in terms of building your own culture and putting your own mark on something. For me, it was a no brainer.”
Riley’s approach to building the Long Island Univeristy hockey program is a simple one. He has surrounded himself with not only the best players he could, but the best in terms of coaching staff as well. And the team on the ice is made of an eclectic mix of experienced players and freshmen.
“From our transfers to our freshmen, it’s exactly, and then some, in terms of what we hoped for in terms of culture,” Riley said. “I’m sure it’s a little bit of a cliche, in terms of coaches saying positive things about their group, but I would go to war with these guys every day of the week.”
Logic would dictate that Riley and his staff would be at a significant disadvantage. Not only were they a brand new program having to recruit players among the other facets that needed to be addressed, but they were trying to put this all together in a short period of time in the middle of a pandemic.
Riley was emphatic that the circumstances were no excuse.
“You know obviously, we had a shorter window and time frame,” Riley said. “Then you add logistical challenges, jerseys, skate sharpener, team space, etc, but those are things we expected. I think we have guys in that locker room that are just hungry for an opportunity and to play the game and they understand the nature of the beast.”
Just 200 days into their existence, the team played their first regular-season game. On November 19, Senior forward Christian Rajic would light the lamp in overtime, to give the Sharks a thrilling 3-2 win over Holy Cross, the first of two wins in a thus-far 2-2 season.
In case you missed it (HOW DARE YOU 👀), here's @christianrajic's 🚨🚨 game-winning goal! 🚨🚨
— LIU Hockey (@LIUMHockey) November 20, 2020
After everything that they had been through to get to that point, the win had an extra special feeling to Rajic.
“It was a great feeling, and to share it with a great group of guys meant a lot,” said Rajic. “We put a lot of work into that first game. A few months off the ice training and finally getting on the ice training. It just showed all the hard work eventually paid off.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a lot of hardship for people across the country and the world, it did help the players to build a tighter bond. Similar to what the New York Islanders experienced during the playoff bubble, the pandemic forced the LIU players to spend a lot of time with one another and helped build a unique chemistry.
“Honestly, it was very unique, but I thought that with the pandemic, it got us a lot closer. Kind of the only guys you can hang out with,” Rajic said.
On a team with 15 freshmen, Rajic is one of the program’s elder statesmen. Prior to coming to Long Island, Rajic had spent three years at the University of Alabama-Huntsville.
Being one of the more experienced players on the inaugural LIU team Rajic is helping to build the culture of the program. He wanted it known that part of that culture includes everyone having a voice, regardless of their age.
“For us, we kind of have a culture where freshmen can say anything they want to the seniors, and we take it as everyone just trying to get everyone better,” Rajic said.
The Sharks are scheduled to play AIC on Saturday and Sunday in just their fifth and sixth games of the season. Long Island University has had to make 20 scheduling changes this season, according to the team.
LIU Still Working on Fine-Tuning Game after Snapping Four Game Skid
After winning two of three to start their inaugural campaign, the Long Island University Men’s Ice Hockey team had been struggling to keep that momentum going and dropped their next four games.
LIU has managed to curb the skid by beating Army 3-2 in overtime in their last divisional game. Their recent struggles are the sign of a young team trying to work out the kinks during an unusual first season.
While LIU did drop their exhibition game to Liberty University on Friday, the victory over Army was a win that showed the progress the program has made.
“We have a lot of character, and I think that has shined through this entire season.” Coach Brett Riley said in an email interview with NYI Hockey Now. “To kill off another penalty in overtime and end the game in that fashion is a testament to our competitive culture and the character we have in our room.”
LIU’s penalty kill had been struggling prior to the victory, sitting at just 71.8 percent. In the win, LIU killed off all six of Army’s power plays, and in their exhibition game on Friday they were a perfect 2-for-2.
The biggest concern, which is a glaring issue, has been LIU’s inability to come through on the man advantage. After seven games, the power play was a whopping 1 for 21 (4.76%). In the win, LIU came through once on their five opportunities, pushing that mark to 8-percent. In the exhibition game, they saw four power-play opportunities go by the board.
“Our hope is to continue to improve on the powerplay and bounce back to where we were on the penalty kill,” said Riley. “I’d love to see our freshman continue with the positive momentum they’ve built as a class and our older guys continue to lead by example. It has been a fun group to coach that has always responded well to being challenged.”
— Brooks Bandits (@BrooksBandits) January 17, 2021
In the overtime victory, a pair of freshmen left their mark. Jacob Franczak scored twice in 90 seconds for his first, and second, collegiate goals, while Jordan Di Cicco scored the game-winner for his first of his college career.
“It felt really great to get the first one, almost a dream come true, and then the second one, I have to give a lot of credit to Derik Osik, who made a really nice pass, said Franczak. “Overall, a really exciting experience I’ll never forget, and it made it even better getting the win.”
For Di Cicco, he came through in the biggest of moments for his team.
“Being able to end the game in overtime was an unreal feeling,” said Di Cicco. “There’s no better feeling than being a part of a big celebration with teammates. We knew we needed a better effort than Friday night, and I thought a lot of guys stepped up to the plate, which was great to see. It was a huge team effort, and we were really happy to get the win for Coach Riley.”
Both Franczak and Di Cicco agreed that the win over Army was a sign of the progress the LIU hockey program has been making over the course of the season. Di Cicco called the victory a huge win for the team coming off the losses.
“We are confident in ourselves, and we know that we can compete with anyone when we are playing our best,” Di Cicco said. “With that being said, there is still a lot that we can learn from in this win. We talked about playing a full sixty minutes, and we gave up a two-goal lead late in the game. We know we can be better and will continue to watch film and improve.”
While the steps the LIU hockey team is taking are positive, their work is far from over.
“We are far from satisfied,” Di Cicco said. “Our culture is built around a 24/7, 365 idea, which means we are looking to get better and improve every single day. Our team has made a huge jump in the short time that we have been together, and I believe we are starting to form a solid team identity.”
Even with a losing record of 3-5, LIU has shown that they are deserving of Division I status in the eyes of Riley.
“More so than wins and losses, we have proven we belong at this level,” said Riley. “Now the challenge to the group is sustaining momentum.”
Slow Start for Reigning Champs LIU is Nothing New for Women’s Program
This season, the reigning NEWHA Champion Long Island University Women’s Ice Hockey team is off to an 0-6 start. But a start like this is nothing new for the second-year program.
Last season, the team turned the page after struggling out of the gate, accomplishing an unthinkable feat. They Captured a conference title their first year in existence.
Winning a championship certainly brings a lot of pressure onto LIU, but the external expectations don’t outweigh what they expect out of themselves.
“The pressure that we experience is the pressure we put on ourselves,” coach Rob Morgan said in an interview with NYI Hockey Now. “If we did not feel pressure, do we really have high expectations? We have high expectations, so when we aren’t meeting those expectations, you start to feel a little bit of pressure.”
For a team that consisted of mostly freshmen — 21 to be exact — the lack of experience and senior leadership was a sure obstacle. However, it gave Morgan’s young team the opportunity to build their own identity together.
“There’s no preconceived ideas of who we are,” Morgan said. “So they all came in with ‘hey we get to all build this together.'”
A year later, the LIU Women’s hockey team has a bit more experience under their belts. They’re down to nine freshmen on the roster compared to the start of last season.
For captain Morgan Schauer, part of the fun of leading the young program has been watching how her teammates have grown through their first season and into their second.
“It’s been interesting, being the oldest one with the other captains,” said Schauer, a second-year transfer student. “Just watching them (freshmen) grow and watching them learn, not only just hockey wise, but life-wise and as we build our identity together, seeing how they all are able to contribute in their own way, its been really cool to watch all of them go through that and figure it out for themselves.”
The 2019-20 season began with games against out-of-conference opponents like the University of Connecticut, University of Wisconsin and Yale. While those games were a challenge, it prepared the players physically and mentally for their divisional play.
“I think in the very beginning we understood that it was going to be a process and It would take time to develop, learn how we wanted to play, learn how to compete at the college level,” Morgan said. “Just believing in each other and making every day count.”
Knowing how long it took last year to pick up the program’s first win, Morgan is looking forward to his team accomplishing that feat this season. “I know our kids are going to be really excited to have our first win this year,” he said.
Shauer looked back on the championship season, and what it felt like to be able to grow as a team.
“We got to build our culture; we had our own identity,” Shauer said. “When we finally were able to come through, come together in the end, and really do it together for the first time, it felt really good, and it was really rewarding. I think it meant a lot to the young girls and to me. I transferred, I went through a lot too. But just to have that and do it with my teammates, it felt awesome.”
Due to COVID-19, the NEWHA, in which LIU plays, essentially fell apart after three teams opted not to play. The school has had to piece together a schedule for this year. To add to that, LIU has not had its full group together in a very long time.
A third of the team joined the group towards the end of December, with kids still missing.
The schedule has not been all too kind to start the new season. LIU faced Quinnipiac University three times, with one more game remaining on the calendar.
Their schedule also consisted of games against Clarkson University and Sacred Heart University, the team that was ranked first in the division last year.
Regardless of how the season plays out, the team will compete against Sacred Heart in a playoff series. Long Island University defeated Sacred Heart in the semifinals last year.
Right now, the focus is on improving every day and finding a way to pick up their first win of the season.
After losing big to Quinnipiac University on Monday night, all the team can do is forget the 11-0 result and move on.
“When we woke up this morning (Monday), there is nothing we can do about the game that we played yesterday (Sunday),” Morgan said. “We had a little talk about things and you know we met as a coaching staff this morning already and we talked about the things we need to continue to focus on and get better at. I know that when we play our next game, we are going to be better.”
Through Chaotic First Season, LIU Sharks Forming Identity on Ice
Game cancellations and postponements due to COVID-19 have shaped the collegiate hockey season thus far.
After falling to American International College back on Jan. 2, the Long Island University Sharks were eager to turn the page and put an end to their two-game skid. Instead, they had to wait 11 days between contests to right the ship.
With nine cancellations and over 20 schedule shifts, the 2020-21 college hockey season has been challenging for the young LIU program, to say the least.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t frustrating.” Coach Riley said during an interview with NYI Hockey Now. “Twice we were on the bus getting ready to go, but that’s a part of the times. I think our guys are learning bigger lessons about life and persevering and being adaptable and making the most of unfortunate situations”.
While the time between games has been challenging, it has also been beneficial, according to defenseman Mat Harris.
“Coach always talks about how we need to build and then sustain momentum,” Harris told NYI Hockey Now. “And obviously, when you are practicing all week, and you got games kind of pulled from underneath you at the last second, it can be tough to do that. … I do think its’ been good for us, just to get those extra reps in.”
Given the amount of time off and the small sample size with just five games under their belt, it is hard to gauge the strength of this program. However, one of the easily noticeable bright spots has been the play of starting goaltender Garret Metcalf
Metcalf, an Anaheim Ducks draft pick, was featured among The Hockey News’ top 100 NCAA players to watch this season, and both Riley and Harris were quick to praise him.
“He’s been exceptional,” said Riley. “He comes from two programs, so he provides great perspective, a mature and calming presence that kind of goes over into our locker room. … On the ice, it’s just nice to know that we have someone who can bail us out when we make young mistakes or whether it be on the penalty kill.”
Assistant Coach @WillMessa takes us through where he thinks the team is at before their game against Sacred Heart.
Also what it has been like to work under @BrettRiley27 and along side @Gilhoolyj7 pic.twitter.com/UwENHnRemu
— LIU Hockey (@LIUMHockey) January 9, 2021
The Sharks defenseman later added that Metcalf had been “an absolute rock between the pipes” and what an asset he had been. Metcalf has a .926 save percentage and a 2.75 goals-against average this season.
Goaltending plays a significant role on the penalty kill, and thus far, the Sharks have killed off penalties close to 83 percent. On the other side of the special team’s coin, the power play has needed work, converting on just 17 of their chances so far.
“I think it’s luck and bounces, but we have to find a way to create those luck and bounces,” Riley said. “That’s not an excuse. We’re working there, and obviously, we’ve struggled to score lately.”
LIU had been outscored 11 to 17 over the first five games and averaged just 2.2 goals per game. When asked about the offensive struggles, Riley voiced the importance of being hungrier near the net.
“If we want to hang our hat on being a competitive team, we need to score goals that competitors do. We’re working at every area, every angle,” he explained.
Zack Bross's first period goal against No. 19 AIC! pic.twitter.com/WyffZqsxhn
— LIU Hockey (@LIUMHockey) January 2, 2021
But that is only a small part of the story. LIU has blocked 92 shots through the first five games, with Harris leading the pack with 13. To put that in perspective, their opponents have blocked a total of 32.
Sacrificing the body is something that the LIU hockey coach does not just request from his players, but he demands it.
“If you don’t block shots, you come out of the lineup. If you miss blocked shots in practice, you skate,” Riley said. “If you miss it in a game, it will be shown on video and your chances of playing the next night are far less. We are not the most skilled team in college hockey or close to it, but we say we want to be the most competitive team.
“If we are not blocking shots or finishing hits, we’re cheating ourselves of who we want to be.”
This team has only practiced 25 to 30 times as a team in program history, and Coach Riley knows his team has a long way to go but is proud of where his guys are. Heading into Wednesday’s game against American International College, the focus at practice has not been on the opponent at hand but on themselves.
“We do a lot of 5 on 5 situational games, a lot of focus on faceoff plays and our offensive zone play”, Harris said. “We’ve been having a lot of success the last few weeks in practice, and we hope that can translate to the game coming up here.”
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