WVU hockey celebrating 50 years

MORGANTOWN — At the end of last season, when WVU Ice Hockey team president and general manager Todd Gookin began preparing for this weekend’s 50th Anniversary Alumni events, little did he know that his duties would become an equal mix of celebration and excavation.
“To be honest, we didn’t even realize the team even existed in 1968,” Gookin said. “After all, there wasn’t even a rink in Morgantown until 1979, and the records from those early days are either non-existent or long lost. So we recognized that the alumni event would be about mining the past as much as a reunion.”
Ice hockey has always been a club sport at WVU, which means that the players, while still subject to nearly all the same NCAA compliance rules as the university’s Division I athletes, receive far less support from the school.
In fact, according to Gookin, despite a yearly budget of over $140,000, the team’s allotment from the school totaled less than $13,000 this year. The players make up the difference out of pocket.
So how does a college hockey team that played for its first decade without a home rink, and has always self-subsidized the lion’s share of their own expenses, survive for half a century?
That’s an easy question to answer for anyone who’s worn a gold and blue WVU sweater.
“It’s all about loving the game,” former coach and GM Don Spencer said. “It’s all about not wanting to hang up your skates after high school, about getting a chance to represent your college, continuing to play a fantastic sport at the next level.”
Of course, any discussion of hockey in Morgantown must start with Spencer, the one-time U.S. Olympic ice hockey team hopeful and venerable former city councilman and indefatigable hockey advocate, who was instrumental in spearheading the efforts that led to the Morgantown Municipal Ice Arena.
“The team existed long before I got involved in 1988, but as I understand it, before the rink was built, there were no practices, of course,” he said. “In fact, there was no coach, no league. The team would schedule a game, jump in cars, and go play. You don’t do that, and sustain it for years and years, without absolutely loving the game.”
Team leadership, coaching, facilities, organization and historical records remained sketchy until the late 1980s, when the Morgantown Hockey Association — the area’s youth hockey organization — offered to sponsor the WVU team, and after WVU accepted, the hiring of Spencer lent immediate credibility, continuity, and responsibility to the program. Three years later, the Mountaineers became one of 17 charter members of the fledgling American Collegiate Hockey Association. The ACHA’s mission has been to upgrade and expand college club hockey in the country, and the organization now boasts 552 teams from all 50 states.
And throughout the years, WVU maintained solid success, as teams have represented the school at Division I, D-II, and sometimes even the D-III levels during most seasons. The legendary 1996 D-I team attained the school’s highest ever ranking at No. 6 on its way to the school’s first trip to the ACHA National tournament, and the Mountaineers have since qualified for Nationals in 2000, 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2014.
Without question, WVU club hockey players enjoy being a part of a long, rich tradition, something Gookin wants to celebrate with as many former Mountaineer hockey players, coaches, and fans as possible.
“We will have a Meet and Greet at 7 p.m. at Mundy’s on Friday night, followed by a WVU D-I game against Robert Morris at the rink at 9,” Gookin said. “Saturday morning, at 7:30, we’ll hold an alumni skate, followed by breakfast, a WVU campus tour, then table discussions and oral histories on WVU hockey. We’ll attend another D-I game against Slippery Rock at 4, followed by a 7 p.m. dinner and panel discussions at Bartini.
“The team’s past is so fragmented, yet so interesting and inspiring,” he continued, “so we really want to reach out to everyone who’s ever been part of the team in any capacity to come and celebrate with us. Bring any memorabilia you have — programs, uniforms, yearbooks, pictures, anything related to WVU hockey. We’re so excited about filling in some of the gaps in our history, and we want to recognize the positive influence and impact the team has had on so many student-athletes.
“And,” he concluded with a smile, “each registered participant will get a four-pack of a specially-designed beer just for this weekend: Mountaineer Ice Hockey Alumni Beer!”

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