Cheney Free Press -

Latest Eastern team takes hockey back to its ACHA roots

Crunch Time


October 5, 2017


Staff Reporter

It’s a place that most would never imagine as a “hockey school,” but Eastern Washington University appears to becoming just that.

Not only does the school field a club team competing in the British Columbia Intercollegiate Hockey League — at home there since 2011 — but now a second group returns to its roots in the American Collegiate Hockey Association.

“The best way to look at it is we’re fortunate enough to have enough quality hockey players (so) in essence we’re fielding two varsity hockey teams,” the team’s head coach, Pat Hanlon said.

The Eagles revisit the ACHA’s Division II level where the hockey program had some of its biggest successes until joining the BCIHL. They routinely earned berths in national tournaments and had their home rink, the University Rec Center, buzzing with excitement.

The desire to cut the expenses of long road trips to Colorado and Utah — other centers of ACHA hockey — and to cut down on lengthy absences sometimes upwards of 20 days from school for its student athletes was the main reason for wanting to play in the Canadian league. The B.C. league team misses just six days of class while the ACHA club is now out just three days, Hanlon said.

The EWU team in the BCIHL faces the likes of Simon Fraser out of suburban Vancouver, the University of Victoria in the provincial capital and Selkirk College to the north in Castlegar, B.C. and others.

That level of play, however, where the teams were able to load up with talent who had played at Canada’s top junior level, the Western Hockey League, left Eastern with a large competition bridge to cross. EWU has spent the past three seasons in the basement of the league.

The second team started out as a spill-over team three or four years ago for the BCIHL club, Hanlon said.

The players on the ACHA team approached Hanlon, who had played collegiately, and was a co-head coach with EWU’s BCIHL team, to lead their efforts to elevate their game.

In the past it was “What student is around to coach these guys?” Hanlon said. “Part of their commitment was to get a coaching staff,” that also includes former EWU player and 2017 grad, Chris Watkins.

While team management has split, it remains under the same school club sports umbrella.

“We each have our own schedule, budget and practices,” Hanlon said. There is no player movement between the two squads. In previous seasons there was a distinctive varsity/junior-varsity connection.

The ACHA Eastern team offers players a place to still enjoy the game after their minor hockey days have passed. Turnout included 22 skaters and a pair of goaltenders, Hanlon said.

The difference in the experience level is that the ACHA team’s players did not play Junior B hockey, like the local Spokane Braves of the Kootenay International Hockey League.

“Most of these guys didn’t go away to play junior (hockey),” Hanlon said, but played on traveling rep teams through their kid hockey days and have significant skills. A handful did play for Eastern’s B.C. team but opted to move because of school commitments.

Before in the ACHA, there was no league play. Now Eastern competes in the Northern Pacific Hockey Conference (NPHC) that also includes Idaho, Portland State and Western Washington.

Additionally Eastern will return to play Montana State (Oct. 13-14 when the MSU football team is in Cheney), the University of Washington, Washington State and Oregon. WSU and Idaho only have access to a three-fourths size sheet of ice in Moscow at the fairgrounds so home games will be played in Cheney.

Eastern has already experienced some of the success they had in their last ACHA tour when the Eagles won the 2015-16 NPHC title.

In their opening weekend, Sept. 22–23, Eastern tied 4-4 and lost 8-4 to Montana Tech before splitting at Western Washington, losing 5-2 and winning 3-2 in overtime last weekend in Bellingham.

It’s a simple mission Hanlon has embarked upon.

“All we’re doing is giving you the opportunity to get an education, keep playing and make new friends,” he said. Five years from now when chatting over a beer at Wild Bills, it will be simply said that, “You played for Eastern.”

Paul Delaney can be reached at


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