USIU Hockey Program Is Way Out but on Way Up

Times Staff Writer

Somebody asked the three captains of the United States International University hockey team--two of whom had transferred from college powers--what it's like to play for the West Coast's only Division I program.

Senior wing Dwayne Wahlin, a two-year player for Maine, said he loves playing hockey in the summer--all year.

Defenseman Mike McGrath, a senior who grew up in Los Angeles and played at Wisconsin for two years, likes the low-key atmosphere at USIU compared with Madison. Reporters there used to write about what the players had for lunch, he said.

Then there was third-year defenseman Matt Shaw, who wasn't thinking about the San Diego sunshine or newspaper stories. He smiled at the question, obviously recounting past adventures and games.

"We're like the Bad News Bears," he said, recalling the movie about the underdog kids' baseball team that used to cause all kinds of problems for mighty opponents.

"We're just a bunch of rug rats. It's like David and Goliath when we play a big hockey school. We love playing these big schools and beating them."

Last season, USIU upset No. 1 North Dakota, 5-3. It was the only home loss for the Fighting Sioux, who went on to win the NCAA championship. It was akin to surfers from North Dakota taking top honors at the Oceanside Pier.

"I was ready to hang them up after that," Shaw said. "That was something you'll tell your grandkids about."

He added: "When someone says you're a hockey team from San Diego, people chuckle. There's always a feeling of playing for respect."

USIU knows it has gained in that regard. Top Eastern and Midwestern schools are suddenly no longer eager to come to San Diego in the middle of the winter.

"Teams used to come out here for a break, go to the beach, get a couple of wins," Shaw said. "It's not like that anymore. Now a lot of these big teams don't want to play us. Teams don't want a blemish on their record saying USIU beat them. Some teams now tiptoe around USIU."

North Dakota is a prime example, USIU Coach Brad Buetow says. The Fighting Sioux were supposed to visit USIU this season but decided against it after last year's loss.

"I don't want to bad-mouth them, but we were planning on playing them," Buetow said. "A lot of teams we've had contracts with will not schedule us. It's frustrating."

Frustrating because a small independent without a tradition needs to play college powers such as Minnesota, North Dakota, Michigan State and Maine to help build its program. Buetow scheduled Minnesota here five consecutive years, and once the result was the first defeat for a 20-0 Gopher team.

"(USIU is) a program that needs the cooperation of teams around the country," Denver Coach Ralph Backstrom said. "We wanted to help them out. But a lot of teams won't come down there."

That's both frustrating and flattering.

"We think we're competitive with anyone in the country," Buetow said. "We're not the highest-skilled team, but we make up for it with our work ethic."

The Gulls are not free-wheeling and stylish like Denver. Rather, they are what Wahlin calls a "bump-and-grind team. We're not a lot of finesse guys. We dump the puck in and forecheck."

And the Gulls win much more than they did before Buetow arrived three years ago; USIU was 4-31-2 and 7-23-2 in the two previous seasons. Buetow was an assistant at Minnesota under Herb Brooks for five years and coached there for six before he came to USIU, where he is 48-41-1 in three seasons and is able to recruit players who once wouldn't have known the school existed.

There are 12 from Canada and eight from the United States on the roster, including three from Southern California (McGrath of Roland Heights, freshman forward Matt Lundgren of Seal Beach and senior goalkeeper Dana Orent of Northridge). USIU, whose San Diego branch has approximately 900 students, has a full complement of 20 scholarships, the maximum allowed a Division I team.

"It's easier to get players now," Buetow said. "There is that credibility factor. Our program is growing and growing. We've proven we can win. Now we have to prove we can win on a real consistent level."

USIU was 20-13 in 1986 and was the nation's top independent. Last season, the Gulls were 19-17-1, the No. 2 independent behind Alaska Anchorage.

This season, with nine new players joining 13 lettermen, USIU is 9-11. It hasn't helped that the Gulls have had to play without Orent, the No. 1 goalkeeper who suffered a disc injury after six games and is questionable for the remainder of the season. Or that the Gulls have had to play 14 of their first 16 games on the road in order to face top competition.

These aren't quick jaunts. The Gulls' closest Division I opponent is Denver. This season, they went to Alaska for four games in six days and to the East Coast for eight games in 18 days during intersession. The Gulls were 3-5 in the East, and they had a lot to time to get to know one another off the ice.

"When you're in hotel rooms for 18 days, you learn a lot about each other," Shaw said. "We got a lot closer. But it's a tough way to start off a season."

Since they returned from the trip, the Gulls are 2-2 at home, including a split with a strong Denver team last weekend at the San Diego Ice Arena in Mira Mesa. Tonight and Saturday at 7:30, the Gulls will host a key series against the nation's top-ranked independent, undefeated Merrimack College (15-0) of North Andover, Mass.

Using a formula based on the strength of opponents, USIU's 9-11 record still is worth a No. 3 ranking among independents, behind Merrimack and Alaska Anchorage. With the NCAA expanding its postseason Division I hockey tournament from eight teams to 12 this season, guaranteeing one playoff spot to an independent, the Gulls have an added incentive.

"We had a shaky start," Shaw said. "But (the playoff selection committee will) go on how teams are playing at the end of the season."

With 12 of the 16 remaining games at home, including series against Merrimack and Alaska Anchorage, Buetow remains optimistic. Playing at the San Diego Ice Arena, where USIU is 4-2, gives the Gulls an advantage, even though the arena is not exactly first-class.

"The facility they play in is not up to standards," Backstrom said. "It's isolated, it's cold, it's dark. That possibly hurts his program."

There was a time last season when the USIU players brought to the arena tons of sand, over which they later installed ice. They then painted the walls and the boards.

"We made a good time of it," Wahlin said. "It was like a party without beer."

Said Buetow: "The building was almost condemned. Either we fixed it or they were going to shut it down."

It's not like the hockey rinks and arenas players from Atikokan, Ontario; Skiff, Alberta, and St. Paul, Minn., are used to.

"Teams come in here and see a rink that's not aesthetically pleasing," Wahlin said. "But it's our home. It's our barn."

Wahlin, Mr. Minnesota as a high school senior at St. Paul Johnson High, calls the Gulls' home "a blue-collar rink. . . . We catch a lot of teams by surprise. When we used to come here when I was at Maine, we would spend time in the pool and the whirlpool. Then, when you get on the ice, it's tough to play."

The arena does not have comfortable locker rooms like the Big Ten schools, and it is a cold place for spectators. During practice this week, the temperature hovered between 35 and 40 degrees, quite chilly if you're not moving around. The arena seats 1,500 in the bleachers and can hold up to 2,500 when the place is packed and some people stand.

Against Denver last weekend, the Gulls attracted 1,878 and 976 fans. Consider that the San Diego State basketball team drew 1,799 to the San Diego Sports Arena when it played a good Rhode Island team Dec. 23. Last season, the Gulls averaged 900 fans for 19 home games. This season, they are averaging approximately 1,000 through their first six games.

A lot of them may not know what offsides is, Buetow points out, but they like the action and his team's hustling effort.

"The enthusiasm is great," Wahlin said. "The fans enjoy a good hit."

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