The men’s club hockey team is ready for new beginnings this year. Last year’s coaching staff is gone and a set of new coaches has been hired to take its place. Nobody on this staff has experience coaching college-level hockey, but that doesn’t mean they’re not familiar with the game or college-level play.
In fact, the 2013-2014 head coach, Grant Riendeau and assistant coach, Konrad Gawel, both graduated from Loyola last year. Both were staple forwards on the team the previous four seasons.
Current senior forward Michael Cronin played with both coaches the last three seasons and calls the adjustment from friend to coach “interesting.”
“We’re good friends and now we have to separate that friendship from coaching,” Cronin said. “But [Riendeau] can relate to us better and knows what we struggle with.”
Riendeau graduated with degrees in finance and marketing. And he still works close to Loyola, finding a (hockey-related) job in downtown Chicago as a sales consultant at Harrow, a sports equipment manufacturer.
While the staff is new, the coaches have made active changes to create a more distinguishable presence for the team within Loyola and the city of Chicago.
To begin that process, Riendeau spent time during the off season on the East Coast recruiting players to the team. In total, 12 new players are on the roster this season; the team held tryouts Monday, Aug. 6 to Sunday, Sept. 1.
The new recruits as well as changes within the team are preparing the program to eventually reach its goal of becoming a Division I sport.
“There have been a lot of changes this season,” Riendeau said. “For the past four to five years, the team has been pretty stagnant. This year the talent level has increased; as a result, we see the culture changing.”
The culture of the hockey program is undergoing a transformation overhaul, and Riendeau compared it to the Chicago Cubs organization as both teams look to bring in new talent and create a dominant Chicago team.
“Chicago needs a college hockey team,” Riendeau said. “ We want to change the culture and how everyone thinks about it … There’s no NCAA Division I hockey team in the city. Our end goal is to be Division I; more doors open that way.”
For the team’s first home game this season it will take on Marquette University on Friday, Sept. 20 at 9:45 p.m. In case some fans aren’t able to attend the home opener, the Ramblers play Marquette again the next night at 9 p.m.
“Marquette’s a good team,” Cronin said. “It will be a good gauge to tell us where we are and what we need to do for the rest of the season.”
The team plays its home games in Wilmette, a 20- to 30-minute car ride from campus. But students don’t have to worry about figuring out which bus to take to get to the ice rink because this year, for home games, the team will provide a fan bus to take students to and from the games.
“When there’s a fan bus, more students get involved and the average fan bus will bring 100- plus students to the games,” Riendeau said. “We had that turnout at three-plus games last season. We’re trying to have a fan bus for every home game this season. Students can buy a ticket and get a shirt and a ride to and from the games. We’ll post signs around campus.”
“ When there are fans at the games, it’s exciting,” Cronin said. “I hope everyone comes out to the games this season.”
There will be plenty of time to make it to a game as hockey season runs from September to February. The team plays, on average, 30 games in the regular season.
The playoffs aren’t out of reach in the team’s mind this year.
“Making the playoffs is the goal,” Cronin said. “We haven’t done that in the three years I’ve played.”
“Last season our record was a few games below .500,” Riendeau said. “This year, I’m expecting to be five to seven games above .500. … This is basically a building year. We expect to be in a higher league than the one we’re in now next year.”
Currently, Loyola hockey is a part of the American Collegiate Hockey Association Division II, Mid-America Collegiate Hockey Association Gold Division.
While the game schedule for the team spans nationwide, the practice schedule for the Ramblers can be described with one word: grueling. On Tuesdays and Thursdays the team has, what Coach Riendeau calls, “late-night” practices: It meets and leaves campus at 10 p.m. and after a half-hour drive, the team members are at the ice rink, but it takes them another half-hour to dress for practice. They’re on the ice from 11 p.m. to midnight and home by 1 a.m.
“We have practice so late because we have to wait for all of the guys to finish class,” Cronin said. “I’m used to it now. It’s difficult; you need to get all your schoolwork done before practice.”
Aside from those two on-ice practices per week, they also have two off-ice conditioning practices and then play two games each week.
“There are 12 new players, nine freshmen, a few seniors and a handful of juniors,” Riendeau said.
While there are many new players on the team, that only increases the team’s competitive drive. “This season, the team has a better attitude,” Cronin said. “We have a lot of young players and guys are fighting for spots. The competitiveness brings out the best in every player.”
For more information about Loyola’s men’s hockey team, visit luchockey.org or like the team’s Facebook page, “Loyola University Chicago Hockey Team.”