People Are Warming Up to Hockey, Now the Hot Ticket at USIU

I don't know if I'm the only one who feels this way around here, but the Winter Olympics have left me cold.

There has been the sad, sad story of speed skater Dan Jansen, the drama of Brian vs. Brian in men's figure skating and the dismal realization that what the U.S. hockey team did in 1980 really was a miracle.

Hibernation is in order.

Indeed, it really is a little hard to sit here in San Diego and relate to what is going on in Calgary, kind of the way it would be hard to sit in Calgary and relate to a day at the beach . . . in February. Nothing happening there could possibly happen here, right?

Wrong.

The best of the Olympic sports, at least in my mind, is enjoying a little burst in popularity hereabouts. The sport is hockey, and I say it's the best because it seems to be the only one in which individuals or teams compete directly against each other instead of racing clocks or facing judges.

Hockey is doing quite well at United States International University, which hardly looks like a hotbed for such a wintry sport. The campus, tucked into the eucalyptus groves of Scripps Ranch, looks more like a sun-baked state park.

"We use the weather as kind of a home-field advantage," mused Mike McGrath, a senior co-captain from Covina. "Teams come out here and see the sun and San Diego, and they want to go sightseeing. We're thinking hockey all the way."

When Alaska Anchorage comes to town for games Friday and Saturday night, McGrath would probably be happy to drive the bus if the visitors want to visit Sea World or the zoo or the beach or Wild Animal Park or Tijuana . . . or, preferably, all of the aforementioned.

These two games will be the biggest in USIU's hockey history, and it has been playing the sport for eight years.

"At times," Coach Brad Buetow said, "I think we're the best-kept secret around."

The secret is sneaking out. Attendance has been averaging 1,700, but the San Diego Ice Arena may well be jammed to its standing-room-only capacity of 2,500 for the games against Alaska Anchorage. It seems that USIU might, just might, get its first invitation to the NCAA tournament if it can sweep.

"We have to sweep," Buetow said. "I'd have a good feeling if we did that, but getting into the NCAA is still a subjective thing."

This is not quite as simple a chore as getting into the "y'all come" basketball party, with its 64 entries, because the hockey field is limited to 12.

Buetow has been there. He went to hockey's final four six times while either head coach or assistant at Minnesota. USIU had won 24 games in the three seasons before Buetow's arrival in 1985-86 and has since gone 20-13, 19-17 and, this season, 21-13 overall and 17-12 against NCAA opponents.

Buetow's team has come from nowhere in creating the potential for this mini-miracle. It started the season 0-7 and 1-10 before coming back.

"We were awful low after that shaky start," McGrath said, "but I'm proud of how all the guys turned it around. A lot of teams would never have bounced back after seven losses in a row."

"We have a lot of character on this team," said Matt Lundgren, a senior co-captain from Seal Beach.

Buetow knew he had young men with character. He learned that during six weeks in September and October, when the players spent four hours a night working to get the rink ready for the season.

"They took pride in the rink," he said. "I didn't know what kind of hockey team we'd be, but I knew what kind of people I had."

Coming back was made more difficult by injuries and a seemingly endless road. USIU started with 12 of 14 games on the road and that, for USIU, is no commuter flight to some sunny city in the Southwest. The road is the three Ms--Maine, Minnesota and Michigan--as well as such places as Alaska and North Dakota. The Gulls' closest geographical rival is Denver University.

USIU goes to places most of its players are from. It has people such as McGrath and Lundgren from the Los Angeles area, but even they moved north to improve their hockey skills--McGrath to the Canadian junior program and Lundgren to Rhode Island for high school. Half the roster, in fact, is from Western Canada.

"Most of the guys who come here don't want to go back," McGrath said.

Remarkably, there is a problem with getting hockey players to come to USIU. They look at the environment and they shake their heads.

"They see what it's like around here," McGrath said, "and they like it. That's the easy part. The tough part is convincing them that we do play good hockey here."

Good hockey is, indeed, played here, and folks are starting to take note. San Diego has long appreciated the sport; it solidly supported two minor league teams as well as the Mariners of the ill-fated World Hockey Assn. More recently, an exhibition game between Calgary and St. Louis of the National Hockey League drew 11,109 to the Sports Arena in October 1986.

Obviously, San Diego has a taste and a hunger for ice hockey. Coincidentally, in the final week of the Catnap in Calgary, USIU is awakening interest hereabouts in the best of Winter Olympic sports.

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