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.