Redbird hockey alums set new goal as program thrives
Make no mistake: Illinois State’s hockey team is ridiculously good. The Redbirds are ranked No. 1 in their league’s central region and carry a 21-4 record as they face off against Wisconsin this weekend.
But a group of former players want to help the team get even better, a mission that starts this Saturday, January 18, at the first Redbird hockey alumni event in several years. They hope to turn four decades of Redbird hockey camaraderie into a reliable support network for today’s players and future teams.
“It’s great to see that they’re thriving,” said Dean Weiss ’80, a former varsity goalie on the 1977-1980 teams. “To see where we’ve come, to see the facilities they have, it’s just fantastic.”
Weiss is the new president of the Illinois State Hockey Alumni Association, which is hosting the 2014 Alumni Day on Saturday. More than 30 former players are expected back in town for a banquet and alumni game before watching the current top-ranked Division 2 Redbirds take on Wisconsin at Bloomington’s U.S. Cellular Coliseum. The game is also Senior Night for the Redbirds.
The Redbirds have been on a great run. They finished the 2012-2013 season ranked No. 3 in the country in American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) play, earning ISU’s Brian Corley the Division 2 Coach of the Year award. And this winter, Redbird standout Josh Ambrosat played on the ACHA Select Team in Europe, where he went on a five-game scoring streak.
That adds to a long history of success for the program, which was founded in 1969. Thanks to founding fathers Dub Easton and Emil Ludy, the hockey team is one of the oldest sport clubs on campus. And Weiss and six other former Redbirds (including Ludy) continue playing together today, as part of a team that’s won two of the last three 50-and-over USA Hockey national titles.
One of ISU’s oldest clubs
Easton was ISU’s general manager back when Weiss played. Back then, the team didn’t recruit talent as much as it does now; Weiss said he can remember Easton recruiting only a couple Canadians each year.
And Weiss said today’s players benefit from the Coliseum and adjoining Pepsi Ice Center, two top-notch hockey facilities. The small Bloomington rink Weiss skated on wasn’t even level, and the team never had true home games. (Weiss said some of his favorite ISU hockey memories were the rowdy away games at Illinois.)
There’s a tremendous need for strong club hockey programs in the U.S. because there are so few Division 1 teams, like the ones you see during NCAA’s Frozen Four, said Weiss. So if a high school player wants to get a good education at a larger school like Illinois State, they turn to club hockey, he said.
Eric Brown ’13 recently finished a five-year run with the Redbirds as Illinois State’s all-time leading scorer, with 250 points. The parks and recreation management major got hired as an operations coordinator with the Rockford park district, but he still finds time to watch his old team in action.
Brown was thankful for the opportunity to play competitive hockey throughout college.
“I’m just happy to be part of it, to know that I helped out and did my part to grow the program,” he said.
Indeed, Brown arrived in the first years after Illinois State moved up into the Mid-America Collegiate Hockey Association (MACHA) gold division. It didn’t take long for Brown’s team to find success there, and last season, the team finished 26-5-1 and made it to the first ACHA Men’s Division 2 National Tournament in school history.
“Nationals was absolutely amazing, and something I’ll hold onto forever,” Brown said. “As you go on as a program, as people see your success, they want to be part of that success.”
“It’s fun to be part of that history,” he added.
But hockey isn’t cheap. Back when Weiss played, he said it didn’t really cost him anything. That definitely wasn’t the case for Brown, whose costs as a player only went up when they traveled to Nationals.
Weiss said he knows lots of former players who would be happy to step up and raise money for their old program, or find other ways to give back. That kind of help is definitely needed, said Brown, who added that today’s players would love the opportunity to reconnect with the program’s alumni.
“You get to hear the history. You really get to realize that hockey was still the same even back then, the guys were the same. It’s a cool experience,” Brown told STATEside.
Are you a former ISU hockey player? Reconnect with the team now by updating your contact information.
Video: Check out Brown and other Redbird players in a video last year from STATEside.
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.