By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The SRJC hockey team had a banner campaign this year, winning the Adams Cup as champion of the Pacific Collegiate Hockey Association.
Right about here is probably where you pause to ask yourself: Huh? SRJC has a hockey team?
You bet. The school has competed in hockey at several points in its history. This incarnation just completed its third season, winning its final eight games to go 11-3, and polishing off UC Davis at South Lake Tahoe Ice Arena on Feb. 24 to claim the PCHA title.
The Polar Bears have developed a loyal following, routinely packing the Snoopy’s Home Ice arena to capacity — that’s somewhere around 700 people. Off campus, though, they remain largely anonymous.
Coach Tom Billeter is hoping the team’s recent glory changes that. Certainly, within hockey circles, word is getting around.
“Three years ago, everyone on the team was local,” said Billeter, who went to Piner High and played for a different version of the program in the 2000s. “Last year, it was probably 70 percent local. Right now it’s probably about 30 percent. The hockey team is having such an impact in the Western U.S. — we’ve got kids coming from L.A., the Central Valley, even Colorado and Michigan. The recruiting is getting to be pretty easy.”
And that despite annual dues that run about $850 per player, money that only partially covers equipment, travel and ice rental. To make up the difference, the team pursues sponsorships and does a lot of fundraising.
Deeply overshadowed by youth sports like soccer and basketball locally, hockey nonetheless has a Redwood Empire core. Among this year’s Polar Bears were players like Blake Johnson, who went to Windsor; Aliaksei Kulikouskiy, an Archbishop Hanna graduate; John Hutton, who attended Montgomery; and Analy grad Willis Swift. “I kind of got known around campus as the guy who plays hockey,” Johnson said of his adolescent years.
Most of them started with roller hockey, though not Kulikouskiy. He grew up in Belarus before following his mother here when he was 14.
It wasn’t always easy for Sonoma County kids to pursue hockey. Snoopy’s Home Ice is the only place within an hour’s drive that they can skate competitively.
That’s why so many junior college students were thrilled to learn that SRJC has a team — and a good one, at that.
This season, their first in the PCHA, the Polar Bears outdid four-year programs like Fresno State, Sacramento State and Northern Arizona. Because hockey is a club sport, the team can compete against any school that does not play hockey as an official intercollegiate sport. That means SRJC faces, and usually beats, the likes of Cal and Stanford.
Due in part to this success — and the fact that they don’t charge admission — the Polar Bears’ home games have become popular events, and not just among students.
“Nobody west of Colorado gets to play hockey in front of this many fans,” Johnson said.
The team currently has about 1,400 fans on Facebook. One ardent supporter has started what he calls the Ruckus Crew, bringing signs and energy to the games.
Snoopy’s Home Ice is smaller than a regulation NHL rink, and the level of play is all over map in the PCHA. Guys like Johnson and Kulikouskiy are experienced players and nimble skaters. Others on the team are new to the sport
“This year, at the beginning, we didn’t even know if we had goalies,” Kulikouskiy said. “One guy had never played hockey. But we threw him in the net and he played in the championship.”
Some of the fans are newcomers, too. Many are surprised they don’t see more bloodshed on the ice at SRJC games.
“Everybody’s shocked I have all my teeth,” Johnson said.
“My old boss told me, ‘I never liked that sport. It’s too brutal,’” Hutton said. “I think she actually looked down on me.”
Another misconception frequently encountered by the Polar Bears: “People thought I was Canadian,” Swift said.
The annual SRJC alumni game is scheduled for March 16 at Snoopy’s. Meanwhile, the Polar Bears can start dreaming of competing in the American Collegiate Hockey Association nationals, which would be the next rung up. The Adams Cup is a reminder that they have the potential — and that these guys are, after all, college kids.
“It’s still in my garage,” Billeter said of the trophy. “I’m letting the honeymoon phase go away so it doesn’t smell like beer.”
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.