Back to Top

Ice dreams: A night with the ONU club hockey team

Goalie Matt Walker awaits the action during the ONU club hockey team's game against Centennial on Jan. 30. (Northern Review photo/ Grant Pepper)

It’s 9:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night in late January as a silver Ram 1500 pickup truck burns down the highway, headed North on I-75 from Ada to Findlay.

In the vehicle are four members of Ohio Northern’s last remaining undefeated sports team, club or varsity. In the truck bed are their equipment bags, replete with sticks and skates and hefty shoulder pads, open to the relentless winter air as it whizzes by.

The team’s mettle will be tested tonight by an assemblage of men and women, most over 40 years old, who are also undefeated.

The conversation in the truck is lively and casual, nothing like the standard, nerve-inducing quiet that fills the air before a varsity collegiate contest. Nothing like what these four have been accustomed to, after four years of being a part of one of Ohio Northern’s most competitive varsity teams.

But at the same time, the mood is not altogether goofy, either. There is a level of focus that is ever-present in a way that not only conveys the magnitude of tonight’s game, but also the way in which these athletes have become accustomed to approaching a sporting event, of any kind, when it draws near.

Tonight, in front of somewhere between 15-20 people, the ONU club hockey team will put their undefeated record on the line.

"You picked the right one to come to, you're in for a treat” Cory Lains, one of the boys in the truck, said in anticipation.

Yes, it’s just a club hockey game, in a B-level adult league. But is that really all it is?

***

This night, Jan. 30, was four years in the making for the four boys in the truck, who are all seniors now.

After their freshman soccer season, they began playing the EA Sports NHL video game. Then they started to watch hockey on television, and the next year, they learned how to skate.

It’s unclear exactly what drew them to the sport, whether it was the speed or the physicality or the teamwork required to advance the puck, which is, at the very least, similar to their native sport.

“It just kind of took off,” J.J. Fortner, who drives the truck, said with a serendipitous grin. Simple enough.

After a couple years of skating, the four decided last year to start playing competitively. With the approval of head soccer coach Brent Ridenour, they would try their hand in the C-level Findlay adult league in the winter following their junior season.

“He had no problem with it, he was completely fine with it,” Fortner said of Ridenour’s response. “Obviously, he said, ‘Don’t do anything stupid with it.’ But we were all smart about it, we all had the gear.”

Fortner and Lains, accompanied by the other two boys in the truck -- Colin Johnson, the rangy forward on the soccer field, and Mac Tompkins, the quick defender -- joined a makeshift adult league roster with a couple other Ohio Northern students and “eight random guys.” They liked it enough to want a team for themselves, one where they would don orange and black and could comfortably say “Let’s Go Bears” on the ice without getting looks.

Just a few months after their first season was complete, the they made it happen. It had been approved by Student Senate; Ohio Northern would have a club hockey team.

After posting flyers, sending emails and setting up a table at Welcome Fest, the club attracted 14 interested members, plenty for a team. Their first season would be this winter, and given the experience level of some of the newcomers, they would play in Findlay’s B-league.

Polar Bears? Playing a sport that was made exclusively for the ice? How fitting.

***

As the silver pickup truck pulls into The Cube’s parking lot, Chiddy Bang’s “Opposite of Adults” blares from its speakers. 20 minutes until gametime, a 10 p.m. puck drop.

“Admission is $20, just to let you know,” Lains jokes as he hops out of the truck.

Unlike their first three games -- a 6-2 win on opening night, followed by an 8-4 win and then a 5-3 win the week before -- Northern expects this one to be close. Like the Polar Bears, Centennial is also 3-0 coming into tonight’s game, and should provide much stiffer competition to a team who has been using their youth and talent to breeze past the competition thus far.

But ‘talent’ is a term used somewhat sparingly on this roster.

It is obvious, when watching ONU play, that there are two groups of players; those who have played their whole lives and those who haven’t.

There are six soccer players on the roster -- the four boys who started the club, as well as sophomore Noah Bachwitz and junior Joey Schulte. Of those, only one had played competitive hockey before being a member of this team (Bachwitz, who played 14 years of hockey growing up in Buffalo, NY). Schilling bought his pads and equipment the night before the team’s first game.

Meanwhile, the roster’s other eight players have all played the sport before, some for their entire lives.

During the team’s first game, Fortner, the club president, said that they started only soccer players on the first line and then played only experienced players on the next line. There was a drastic difference.

“We noticed that the puck was in our zone the whole time when we were out there,” Fortner said, laughing. “And then we changed and all the experienced guys went out, and the puck was on their end the whole time.”

Now, the team sends a mix of two or three soccer players onto the ice with two or three experienced players at all times.

“We kind of actually balance each other out to the B-league level, which is pretty funny,” Fortner said. “But they’re out there trying to help us get better, and they’ve been really good about it.”

The difference in experience levels is as clear as day. One time during the first period of their game against Centennial, Fortner had a one-on-one scoring opportunity with the opposing goalie. He shifted the puck back and forth with his stick and tried to make an in-and-out move to fool the goalie -- which resembled a move that he might perform on the soccer field -- but instead of tapping a ball into the back of the net, Fortner stumbled over the puck and fell to the ice.

He laughed it off.

On another occasion, Tompkins tried to receive a pass from across the ice and fell when the puck hit his skates. That also got a good rouse from the bench.

Conversely, some of the more experienced players on the roster will often make plays that are SportsCenter-worthy in the Findlay adult league. Sophomore Michael Shilling, who played hockey since he was in kindergarten but stopped after high school, will occasionally take the puck on one end of the ice and slice his way through the defense, in almost a casual form of cruelty, only to slap in a shot from an ungodly angle once he reaches the other end.

Lains said on the ride to the rink that “you’ll be able to tell right away” who Shilling was. He was right.

The team had to establish before the season started that the experienced players, especially the ultra-talented Shilling, would try to keep things at a B-league level, or at least slightly above, in order to avoid complaints from other teams.

“Some of our better players, we ask them, ‘Hey, just make sure that the other team is having fun,’” Fortner said. “We don’t want to be getting complaints and not be able to return next year.”

“We're all just trying to have fun and no one has an NHL contract on the line,” Shilling added. “If I start skating around everyone and being a puck hog then I'm taking too much of the fun away from others and I'm not helping my teammates improve and get better. That's not what this is about. It's about the love of the game.”

However, despite the gap in talent, the experienced players appreciate the way that the soccer players approach the game. It’s a fresh, new perspective, an enlightened way to play the game. They have not had the long-held conventions of hockey drilled into their minds by coaches and parents for their entire lives, so they play with a bit of freedom.

Plus, to a certain extent, they play hockey like they play soccer. They will often try to field the puck with their feet instead of their stick, and will also look like they’re trying to run up the ice while skating. When asked about these tendencies, the experienced players laughed in amusement.

“It’s good to play to your strengths, and that’s definitely their strength -- their feet,” Logan Kieklak, a freshman from Cleveland who has played for 15 years, said. “So a lot of the guys kick it more than they use their stick.”

Fortner said that even though they might not be proficient at skating yet -- and especially skating with their heads up -- their speed from soccer has helped them make up for that. And among other similarities between the sports, Fortner said that while watching the NHL, he’s seen the pros juggle soccer balls with their feet for a warmup drill.

But maybe that’s why the soccer players enjoy hockey so much. There’s the right mix of inexperience and passion, still learning the game but also loving it enough to care about winning, to peak their interest.

As the 10 p.m. start time approaches, there seems to be little disparity among the soccer and experienced players as to their approach to the game. After the game before theirs ends, they get on the ice quickly and run through an organized warmup drill. They laugh sparingly now, game faces in full effect.

And as every player takes their final warmup slapshot, they head down to the goal and bump fists with the keeper, who bumps them back while taking swigs from his water bottle. In a matter of minutes, Matt Walker will be engaged in puck warfare, and will have to use all five senses to make split-second decisions on where to leap, where to block, where to slide.

The pucks will scream through the air like bullets, and Walker will be ready for it all. He’s been practicing.

***

Aside from the four boys who started the club, Matt Walker is the only member of the original C-league team left. When the team needed a goalie last year, Walker’s friend Clay, who knew Fortner, told the former goalie that he should give it a try. After four years away from the game, Walker jumped at the opportunity to lace up the skates again.

Walker, a sophomore computer engineering major from Hilliard, OH, had played hockey up until his freshman year of high school. But once he got to high school, he didn’t like the guys on the team and chose to focus his energy towards the marching band instead.

Did he miss hockey?

“Oh yeah,” Walker said the day after their game against Centennial. “I wasn’t enjoying it when I got to the high school level, I didn’t like the guys that I knew were going to be on the team. So I dropped out. But then the second I saw the chance to be able to play again, I hopped on it.”

Although it’s unfair and nearly impossible to rank ONU’s players by their value on the ice, if it were to be done, most would agree that Walker would be near the top. Against Centennial, he was magnificent, sliding and diving and blocking shots with all parts of his body to keep Northern in the game.

And as much as the players have fun and joke while playing the club sport, Walker makes sure that he’s prepared. He works on his hand speed by throwing a tennis ball against his dorm wall and trapping it with his glove hand, taking it out just to do it over and over again when he needs a study break.

He believes that along with his experience (he spent 10 years playing goalie as a youth hockey player), his engineering background has helped with his ability to protect the goal. Walker uses spatial reasoning to understand where the puck might be and where it might go when it’s in his zone and he can’t see it. Then again, he also often relies heavily on instinct.

“It’s all reactions and the timing, and it’s something that I’ve gotten the skill for over the amount of years that I’ve played the game,” Walker said. “Just the other night, there was a play where there were like four people skating right in front of my crease and I couldn’t see anything. And I heard them take the shot, and I just snapped and I caught it in my hand.”

“I don’t necessarily see the puck 24/7 when it’s in my zone and I’m trying to keep it out of the net, which is scary as a goalie, because you kind of want to know where the puck is so you can stop it. So you kind of have to work on the ability to hear and see and kind of use all your senses together as one.”

Part of the reason why Walker was willing to step back into the goal was because he had learned from his younger days. While he used to succumb to the stress of being a goalie, the last line of defense, he is now able to brush a goal off here and there. He said that he’s able to do so because of his teammates on the club team, who not only understand the difficulty of his job but also the fact that, at the end of the day, they’re playing in an adult league.

“The guys really make it just fine. A goal goes in and I’ve just learned to shrug it off. Like, it’s fine, we’re going to come back from this,” Walker said. “You can’t let it get to you, or you’re going to lose your edge.”

Walker will need his edge tonight, as both undefeated teams take the ice. Here we go.

***

For the first few minutes of that Tuesday night game, both teams spent an equal amount of time on each other’s side of the ice. In between occasional episodes of missed pucks and skating malfunctions, it had the mood of a real hockey game. It was physical, it was fast, and the moment still wasn’t big enough for Schulte, the one who had just bought his equipment the night before the team’s first game.

Five minutes into the first period, the junior midfielder-turned-skater tapped a shot in from a few feet out to give Ohio Northern a 1-0 lead. As it turns out, the soccer kids can play, too.

After a number of breathtaking saves from Walker, the Polar Bears found themselves leading 1-0 after one period. Not quite the ease with which they had won their first three games, but that was expected.

As the players came back to their bench for the period break, they were greeted by their three “coaches” -- Chris Garbig, Grant Cayot and Ben Conkin, all friends of the four boys who started the team and all former soccer players. Standing on the bench, the three coaches would not spare an opportunity to lighten the mood.

“We want a halftime speech!” Fortner tells the coaches as he skates towards the wall. “Hit somebody!” one of them yells back, referencing Rick Vice’s character in the comedy “Division III: Football’s Finest.” Everyone laughs.

Despite the intensity of this game, it doesn’t take much to realize the overall insignificance of it. The people involved care, but not too much. In between calls, the referee closest to the benches takes sips from a can of Miller Lite -- well, two cans, as he stores on on each bench -- while chatting with the players. The scorekeeper chats with the rink owner for most of the game. Just another night in the adult league.

The second period begins with a flurry, as Northern scores twice to go up 3-0. It was beginning to have the look of the team’s previous three games.

With less than two minutes remaining, though, Centennial found their footing. They scored twice in a span of 40 seconds to pull within 3-2, and all of the sudden, things became very real for the boys in orange and black.

As they skated towards the bench after the end of the second period, the coaches razzed the players somewhat jokingly about the dismal end to the period. “Who do you play for?” one coach yells, a humorous reference to the most famous American hockey movie ever made, “Miracle.”

But when the players huddled before they took the ice for the third period, there was no joking. As relaxed as the team was, as the league was, these were competitors at heart. Six of them played soccer at Ohio Northern, a program that is, to say the least, not accustomed to losing. The other eight have played hockey their entire lives, and whether or not they want to admit it, that fire is still there.

“I know this is fun but I don’t want to f***ing lose this game,” one of the former soccer players says before they take the ice.

Enough said.

***

Things didn’t go quite as planned to start the final period, however.

After eight minutes of back-and-forth action, Centennial scored again on a short shot from point blank. Once ahead 3-0, Ohio Northern had now let Centennial come all the way back.

“I’m gonna start to get physical here,” Tompkins tells Lains on the bench.

Frustrated with himself, even though he tries his best to keep his mind clear, Walker puts on a show in front of the goal for the next three minutes. He records save after save, diving and deflecting and doing everything humanly possible not to let this one slip away.

With six minutes left, Walker blocks a slapshot from the point. The puck goes screaming through the air and catches Walker right beneath his chest protector.

“I almost took a knee after I took the shot because it hurt so bad,” Walker, who would end up with a puck-sized bruise right above his belly button, said.

But he toughed it out and stayed up, pushing the puck out to Kieklak, who found Shilling, who passed it up the ice to Kyle Klawon near the center of the ice. From there, the P5 from Buffalo, NY with 14 years of hockey experience slapped the puck into the back of the opposing net.

Writhing in pain on the other end, Walker’s grit had paid off. It was a momentum-changing play, and Northern would never surrender the lead again. Two minutes later, P1 Nate Efstation (another player from Buffalo who had played his entire childhood) scored once more for good measure.

As time ticked off the clock, the Polar Bears skated off the ice with a regained spirit of relaxedness. They won 5-3, keeping their undefeated streak alive. After they shook hands with Centennial, a few players performed inspired “Miracle” reenactments on the ice, acting out the scene where coach Herb Brooks tells his players “Again” as he makes them do line sprints for hours after a game, laughing and sliding around before they made their way to the locker room.

Now that all the dust had settled, they remembered; this was just an adult league game, after all. Wasn’t it?

***

Standing in the hallway after the game, holding blankets and jackets (when asked, the zamboni operator at The Cube said that the temperature on the ice is 19 degrees) were three members of Fortner’s family. His mother, Amy, stood alongside his grandparents, Gene and DeeDee, as they waited for their son to emerge from the locker room.

“We’re glad that he has more sports that we can watch,” DeeDee says glowingly, wrapped in an orange and black scarf, clutching a blanket patterned with soccer balls.

They proceed to talk about how the passing in hockey reminds them of the way their son and his friends used to move the ball down the soccer field, cutting in between defenders and sending precision passes up the sideline.

“You can see them passing, setting up…,” the mother begins.

“Setting up like they do in soccer,” the grandfather adds.

“Yeah, when they set up the plays,” the mother continues. “I can see it from the soccer boys, doing that. I don’t know if that’s normally done in hockey, but it looked like they were trying to set them up like that. It’s fun.”

As the players emerge from the locker room, Lains talks about the physical demands of playing adult league hockey.

"I sweat as much in a game of hockey as I do in a soccer game,” he says laughing.

Although the four senior soccer boys all walk up to Fortner’s family and exchange hugs, there is certainly no divide between the soccer natives and hockey natives on the team. Players like Walker, among others, exchange pleasantries as well. The two groups mingle, even off the ice, which speaks to their chemistry.

When asked about what they think of the former soccer players, multiple experienced players on the team had the same response -- one of respect.

“They’re a great bunch of people,” Kieklak said. “You can tell they were passionate about soccer, and they brought that chemistry from what they had on the field to the ice, and that has rubbed off on all of us.”

Walker took it one step further.

“I think picking hockey back up once I got here was one of the best decisions I’ve made,” the goalie said. “It’s just a great group of guys and it’s a great sport, it’s something I’ve always enjoyed.”

The same goes the other way, as the soccer players have expressed their appreciation for the patience exhibited by the hockey natives, who have taught them the ropes of the sport -- to a certain extent -- thus far.

After they threw their bags into the bed of Fortner’s truck and hopped inside, another victory under their belts, the club’s founding fathers discussed the future of the club on the ride home. Eventually, Fortner says, they would like to grow the club to where it could enter two teams in the Findlay league. The end goal, he says, is to have the club grow to a level where they can play against other top-notch Ohio club teams, such as Bowling Green, Miami and even John Carroll.

And even though Fortner and the other three soccer seniors will be gone after this year, they are already working hard to set the club up for a prosperous future. Lains, the CEO of Polar Merchandise, along with Fortner, a senior sales representative, sold over $1,500 worth of ONU Club Hockey t-shirts, sweatshirts and jerseys last week in an online push to raise money. Fortner said that the money will go straight back into the club, to be used for potential future endeavors like putting a makeshift rink on campus, so that it would be easier for the team to hold practices.

“I don’t know if we’re going to have enough money to do that yet, but if it’s something that these guys can kind of take and go with in the future, hopefully we’ll be able to raise the funds for that,” Fortner said.

The four chattered about the game on the ride home, reminiscing on all the mistakes that were made and joking about the slips, stumbles and missed pucks. They talked about how they wish ONU would let them skate on the campus ponds, somewhat jokingly but mostly serious.

In the days following that game, Fortner would talk about how he wished they had started the club three years earlier. His passion for the club is evident in the way he talks about his hopes for it in the future. He is not merely the president of a club, but also the founder of a culture, one that he hopes will grow and gain steam in the years to come.

“Do you think ONU will ever make hockey a varsity sport?” Fortner is asked.

“Maybe down the line, I’m not really sure how hockey works with D-III schools and varsity sports. But I know Northwest Ohio is a growing area for hockey,” Fortner said. “I’m from the Toledo area and it’s very popular up there. So, if we can maybe grow the club enough to where we can start recruiting people from there, then who knows. Maybe someday it can be a varsity sport, which I would love to see.”

Imagine this: Fortner, Lains, Tompkins and Johnson all come back to campus 20 years from now to watch Ohio Northern’s first home varsity hockey game. With players from across the country (kind of like the club team has now) and an arena of their own, the Polar Bears take the ice for their first home game.

The puck is dropped and action begins. What was once started by four soccer players in the freshman dorms years ago is now a program that brings students and families to Ohio Northern. What was once a dream is now reality, but one far more impactful than ever predicted back then.

This could all happen if the right people get in charge and the culture remains. It’s a pipe dream, one that Fortner loves to consider but knows is far away.

For now, he’s just focused on skating with his head up.

                                                           

Follow us on social media

WONB-Radio

Navigation