Wait, Berklee Has a Hockey Team?

How fitting. My 300th post gets published by the Boston Globe.

The Worcester Wildcats, a Junior league (developmental league for high school and college-age players) team, arrived at the Simoni Ice Rink in Cambridge, Mass., on February 12 for a hockey game. Their opponents: the Ice Cats, a club team from… Berklee? Berklee College of Music has a hockey team?

It does, and they’re currently 10-4. Not bad for musicians.

The Ice Cats come out aggressively against the Junior Wildcats, and captain Taylor Martin scores 20 seconds into the first period on a wrist-shot just inside the left goal post.

Berklee’s chippy, physical game disrupts the Wildcats’ skating and passing finesse, and they score twice more in rapid succession – from the right side of the ice by left wing Jon Priest, then on a tip-in by center Neal Warner 20 seconds later.

But with six minutes left in the first period, Berklee right wing Carter Lee is ejected for an illegal leg check. The Ice Cats bench laughs as Lee skates off the ice; this is not Lee’s first penalty for aggressive hits, Berklee coach Jimmy Gately says after the game.

The Wildcats score twice while Lee is serving his five-minute major interference penalty, cutting the Berklee lead to 3-2. That seems to light a fire in Priest, who scores three times in the second and third period: on a backwards pass from Richard in the second, after faking out two Wildcats and going airborne early in the third, and on a short-handed goal (4-on-5) in the closing minutes of the game. He also gets an assist in the first period.

“It was a tough blow in losing our leading goal scorer in Carter Lee,” Priest says of his strong offensive night. “Somebody had to do it, and I was looking up and down the bench, and nobody else was gonna do it, so I figured it might as well be me.”

Final score: Berklee 8, Worcester 3.

The Ice Cats play exciting hockey, but nobody comes to watch. Four fans watch the initial face-off, and seven more trickle in before the first period ends. Even in the closing minutes of the game, fewer than 20 Berklee students are watching their school’s only true athletic team.

Worse, they aren’t behaving like sports fans. They cheer politely for goals, or for big saves by goalie Jeremy Blas, but otherwise they sit quietly and respectfully, as if at a music recital.

A small but rowdy gang shows up for the second period, livening things up by banging on the glass behind the Berklee bench, cheering, stomping, mocking the Wildcats, encouraging fights. Jessi Damron, a visitor from Detroit, says they’re trying to make the occasion “feel more like a hockey game.”

“A lot of students don’t know that we have official school colors,” says assistant coach Doug Orey. “They don’t realize that we have a mascot.”

Orey says the Ice Cats have tried to get more fans by adding music, with mixed results. The Ice Cats brought in a Berklee band for a March 2007 game, but they played jazz standards, not fight songs. Plus, Simoni has no sound system, it’s a half-mile from the nearest subway station, the seating is uncomfortable, the rink is toe-numbingly cold, and the place is just plain ugly.

Since 2006, Berklee students wishing to play NCAA sports have been able to try out for one of cross-town Emerson University’s 14 NCAA Division-3 sports, said Jane Stachowiak, Berklee’s Director of Student Wellness and Health Promotion, in an email. But students who want to wear Berklee’s red and gray can skate for the Ice Cats (named after Berklee mascot Mingus the Jazz Cat) in the American Collegiate Hockey Association, Division 2. Their opponents include Junior teams and club teams from local schools such as Bentley University in Waltham and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. They also play against Emerson’s hockey team in the annual “Boylston Cup” at Boston University’s Walter Brown Arena.

Goaltender Blas says that the hockey team has been a unifying force among its players at a school where musical tastes can create “a conscious divide” within the student body.

“We come from different backgrounds, but it’s funny that hockey is the one thing that ties us all together,” Blas says. “When we get together and watch puck, everyone is just a big family and everything else is put aside.”

Berklee’s administration, led by Associate Director for New Student Programs Tamia Jordan, sees potential in the Ice Cats.

“I went to these schools where athletics created this huge sense of community, and the number one goal of a student activities center is to build community on a college campus,” Jordan says. “When I look at the Ice Cats, I see them as a tremendous opportunity to create a sense of community and a sense of ‘We’re home of the Ice Cats’ here at Berklee.”

Although Jordan says Berklee currently funds about two-thirds of the Ice Cats’ expenses, through uniforms, rink fees and extra health insurance, plans to popularize and re-brand the team are still in the initial stages.

Kevin Gin, Coordinator for Clubs and Events, says that he’d like to see a student internship created to market and manage the team, which he thinks would be a valuable experience for students studying music business or band management.

Gin says that with the right marketing, Ice Cats games could become a central part of the Berklee experience, welcomed by a student body partially made up of graduates from more athletically oriented universities.

While Jordan and Gin say the key to increasing the Ice Cats’ campus presence lies in treating them not as a student-run club but as an actual athletic team, the Ice Cats will likely never join the NCAA.

“I think it unlikely that Berklee would attempt to gain NCAA status as the process for doing so is very cumbersome and we do not possess the facilities needed,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Bethune in an e-mail.

Tamia Jordan agrees, but adds, “Crazier things have happened.”

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The Ice Cats’ final tournament starts Saturday, March 26, at the Simoni Ice Rink. For more info, e-mail icehockey@berklee.net

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