New-Look UW Hockey Club Takes to the Ice
The uniforms will look the same.
Don't expect to recognize much else about the University of Wyoming hockey club this season.
With a new coaching staff and a revamped roster, the Cowboys open the 2011-12 American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) campaign this weekend against Border War rival Colorado State University with plenty to learn about themselves.
"It's basically a brand-new team," says Mitch Nelson, a senior forward from Sheridan and one of the club's few familiar faces. "It going to be interesting to see what happens."
How will UW respond to first-year coach Eric Wood and his disciplined approach to the game?
Can T.J. Hill, a sophomore from Colorado Springs, Colo., with just six collegiate games to his credit, establish himself as the club's No. 1 goaltender?
Do the Cowboys have enough defense?
Will the club's 12 newcomers blend with the 17 returnees?
Those are but a few of the questions UW must answer during a 30-game season that stretches into February. The Cowboys' schedule features 15 games at the Laramie Ice and Events Center, including nine of their first 12 contests, and a home-and-home series in December against the first-year Cheyenne Stampede of the Western States Hockey League.
"I think we've got a good core of guys, even though there are definitely big changes from last year," says Levi Wood, a senior forward from Cheyenne and the coach's son. "But we come into every year with high hopes and it's no different this year. We want to get to nationals, that's our goal.
"We're going to play hard-nosed, fast, hard-hitting hockey and come at everybody 110 mph all the time and run teams into the ground."
Following a highly disappointing 2010-11 season that began with chatter about winning the university's second ACHA Division III national championship but ended with a losing record (10-11-1), Eric Wood took over as UW's coach.
A hockey enthusiast who has played for 35 years and coached about 10 years, though never at the collegiate level, Wood hopes to bring greater discipline to a team that appeared to break apart following an early seven-game losing streak last season.
"It's gonna be a lot more structured than in the past," the coach promises.
Though the Cowboys don't return their leading scorer of a year ago, Matt Schulz, who rang up 37 goals to rank among the ACHA leaders, UW's success will likely hinge on its play in the defensive end, where opposing skaters found too much open ice last season.
The Cowboys allowed five or more goals in eight games, all losses, and held opponents under two goals just three times.
Juniors Jake Bates (Jackson), Dan Lang (Casper) and Patrick Ramsey (Houston, Texas) and sophomore Jim Fried (Kirkwood, Mo.) return on the blue line. But depth is a concern.
Between the pipes, UW hopes Hill (2-2, 3.15 goals-against average last season), the most experienced of a group of goalies that also includes sophomore Ben Steele (Los Angeles, Calif.) and freshman Jordan Grove (Pinedale), both club newcomers, will emerge.
"Defense and goaltending could be a little bit of a struggle," Eric Wood says. "We need some people to step up."
Without Schulz, who returned this season to the Cody-based Yellowstone Quake, one of just three Junior A hockey programs in Wyoming, UW's offense figures to be fronted by Nelson, Dustin Galbreath (Highlands Ranch, Colo.) and Billy Ross (Boulder, Colo.). They are the only returnees who reached double figures in points last season.
"The goal scoring will be really spread out. We're not going to have any real standouts," Eric Wood says. "All the lines will be pretty even."
The Cowboys hope to get an offensive boost from a former Quake player for the third consecutive year. Freshman forward Tyler Roberts (Douglas), who recorded 19 goals and 16 assists in 48 games last season in Cody, may be the club rookie with the greatest chance of making an impact.
Last season, Schulz turned the ACHA on its head following a season with the Quake. A year earlier, Nelson joined UW after playing in Cody and ended up leading UW with 22 goals and 39 points.
While Roberts could be a key piece to the Cowboys' puzzle, UW's coach says it'll take a team effort -- and a healthy dose of discipline -- to rebound from last season's disappointment.
"I want to do a fair bit better than last year, I know that, but we need everybody playing together to have some success," Wood says. "I really think we're gonna give it our best."
The Cowboys' season-opening series against the Rams includes a 7 p.m. game Friday at the EPIC Center in Fort Collins and an 8:30 p.m. matchup Saturday in Laramie.
For a complete roster and schedule, go to the club's official website at https://www.uwyo.edu/UWYOHOCKEY/default.htm.