Equipped with a new coaching staff and a slew of both new and returning talent, the SF State Gators Hockey Club looks to take big strides forward in its second full season.
The Gators finished with a disappointing 2-14 record in the team’s inaugural campaign as a Pacific Collegiate Hockey Association Club last year. Team president Andrew Duenes said the coach-less team of 2013 will be a thing of the past by the time the puck drops at their season opener. The club takes on the San Jose State Spartans at 10 p.m. Sept. 27 at Sharks Ice in Fremont.
“Honestly, our biggest strength will be having coaches this year,” said Duenes, a 22-year-old left-winger.
According to Duenes, the team had a coach last season who showed up to help during practices, but could not make it to many games. As a result, some players called line changes and plays behind the bench at game time in place of the coach.
Duenes approached two graduated members of last year’s team, Ryan Papazian and Kevin Barlow, to return for coaching roles behind the bench.
“I’m totally excited to fill those shoes,” Papazian said. “I’ve been playing for my whole life, so I’ve gone through the years watching coaches and seeing what they’ve done.”
Matt Gold, a 21-year-old left-winger for the Gators, said the team embraced having former teammates now drawing up plays.
“Ryan and Kevin were probably the best players on the team last year and everyone had the utmost respect for them,” Gold said. “We already saw them as having a leadership role last year.”
The team practices Sunday nights at the Nazareth Ice Oasis in Redwood City, and now calls the Oakland Ice Center home on game day after being displaced from the Cow Palace at the end of last season.
According to Duenes, a partnership with the San Francisco Bulls of the East Coast Hockey League allowed them access to the storied San Francisco venue last season. But the Bulls folded, leaving the Gators without a place to skate during home games.
“We had to shop around and find the best rink for us,” Duenes said. “Oakland came into the picture, so they’re our home rink. I’ve played there, the ice is awesome. It’s probably one of the best places in the Bay Area.”
The Gators new home ice is 15 feet wider than a standard NHL hockey rink. The Olympic-sized rink poses a new challenge for the club.“It’s a lot of ice to cover,” Duenes said, “but it gives us more room to try to move the puck around.”
Puck movement and play development are two aspects of the game that the Gators need on the Olympic rink, and Papazian said the team is working to get better in that area every week. However the team’s lack of defenders is a point of emphasis going forward.
“We have two defensemen, possibly three,” Papazian said. “We’re going to have to drop some people back on defense.”
Papazian said the Gators only have one goaltender as well. The team hopes to have a second goaltender, as well as a few more defensemen by the start of the season.
But even with the lack of backend depth, Duenes said the team is confident it can make the tournament.
“We’re still considered the underdog of the whole league, but this year I feel like we have a good chance,” Duenes said. “I think our game is definitely changing this year.”