Where Utah Rugby is now, the University of Utah hockey club once was.
Utes hockey was on fire in club hockey in 2003. Dominating Division II of the American Collegiate Hockey Association, the Utes were projected to move up a tier to the highest level of competition the following season. Off the ice, however, the Utes were far from outstanding.
Several infractions with the university landed the hockey program an indefinite suspension and banned everyone on the team from ever playing for the university again.
Sounds somewhat familiar, doesn't it?
Recently, the Utah Rugby club, also a club sport managed under Campus Recreation Services, was firmly suspended through 2013 for violating a previous suspension instituted by university officials. The statement issued by University of Utah Communications said the team will resume play in January of 2014 under strict probationary status.
In its own press release, the rugby program promised to actively work hard to repair the relationship between the team and the university and to reassess all components of the club. Both the club and the University of Utah say they have hope for a bright future in Rugby.
“The rugby program has a rich history with a passionate following and I'm confident it will emerge stronger after this unfortunate chapter,” Vice President for Student Affairs Barbara Snyder said in the official university statement.
Although the suspension issued to Utah Rugby is less harsh than the suspension issued years ago to the hockey team, which effectively was a complete disbandment, the situation regarding both suspensions are notably similar. Utah hockey, like rugby, had to deal with infractions regarding travel and intolerable player behavior.
The University of Utah's experience with the hockey club was so disastrous that when reorganization efforts began three years later, months of effort were required to persuade the university to even consider sponsoring club hockey again.
J.M. Lecointre, who became the club's first president after reinstatement, ultimately convinced University of Utah officials that the new team would be structured under a completely new vision, and he was given the go-ahead to make it a reality.
After the hockey team was finally allowed back on the ice, the Skatin' Utes quickly realized their competitive advantage was gone. Utah lost virtually every game in its return season, eking out a single victory. The program has faced an uphill challenge every year since in the ACHA West.
Current Utah Hockey Club President A.J. Boldan joined the team in 2007, the season following reinstatement, and became president in 2008. Boldan saw ugly days, flashes of brilliance throughout rebuilding years and, more recently, success — success which is the result of a deliberate, comprehensive strategy to restore the reputation of the club and develop a competitive team.
In order to carry out this plan, the Utes sought out players who could dominate on the ice, but the Skatin' Utes needed to succeed in the classroom as well. By 2012-13, the average GPA of Utah's hockey team was 3.1 with nine players on the dean's list.
The Utes also wanted to develop a strong pool of talent, which was virtually non-existent immediately following reinstatement. Now more than 60 players try out for Utah Hockey on an annual basis, an unimaginable reality just a few years ago.
The large talent pool has given Utah Hockey the luxury of being selective with its players, and Boldan said player selection operates at a high level.
“One thing that I've always appreciated from our coaching staff is the mentality that we're not looking for the best players, we're looking for the right players.“Everybody would bleed and die for each other on that team,” Boldan said.
Following six years of hard work and effort to restore its reputation, Utah Hockey is nearly back to its former glory. In 2012 and 2013, the Utes earned competitive invitations to the ACHA West Regional tournament, and in the 2012-13 season, the Utes won the Pac-8 Championship.
Its latest accomplishment, Utah Hockey has been granted a bid to host the 2015 ACHA National Championships. For hosting the tournament, the team will automatically receive a spot in the competition.
Boldan said the path back started with no expectations and hard work to prove the integrity of the club.
“We didn't come out of the gate asking for the world to compete,” Boldan said. “We kept to our business, we got good grades and we tried to win on the ice.”
The culmination of the entire process has been the University of Utah's decision to allow Utah Hockey to once again use the Drum and Feather, the official logo of Utah Athletics. Furthermore, the Steiner Sports Complex placed the Utah Hockey logo on the ice for home games, a significant gesture to the team.
"I think campus knows what we're about now," Boldan said, "and they were more than happy last season to allow us to use the Drum and Feather. It really defined what home ice advantage was knowing that we're playing with our logo on the ice."
Having been where Utah Rugby is now, Boldan knows all too well what it will take to rebuild a once successful club. As part of Utah Rugby's penalty, they are not allowed to use university logos for the foreseeable future, and will be under strict supervision next season.
“It's tough,” Boldan said of next year's Rugby team. “Getting a team off the ground is a tough thing. So hopefully they have the people in place that have the dedication to get through it.”
While looking to rebuild a dejected Utah Rugby team, the program might find value in the lessons learned from their friends on the ice. It will be up to Utah Rugby to put in the effort, but reemerging as a competitive team is definitely in the realm of possibility.
Whitney O'Bannon is a new media sports writer for the Deseret News. Follow on Twitter at @whitney_oban.
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