No. 7 BYU hockey fell short in Tempe, Arizona, at the Western Division Regional Playoffs last year, losing 2-0 to No. 6 Grand Canyon University. The Cougars will receive a second chance at earning BYU hockey its first regional title when the team takes on GCU yet again on March 1.
With regionals in the near future, BYU captains Ashton Shimbashi, Teagan Pitcher and Nixon Barber feel fairly confident based on their previous meeting with GCU this season. On Nov. 9, the Cougars snatched a 2-1 win on GCU’s home turf.
This was BYU’s first meeting with the Lopes since the team’s fatal loss at regionals last spring. Team members are hopeful going into their upcoming regional matchup, hoping not to repeat history.
The team has made leaps and bounds of improvement since transitioning from a club team called the Provo Ice Cats to officially becoming affiliated with BYU in 2007. During the 2016 season, the Cougars held a disappointing 7-21 record.
As a senior who played before and after a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Shimbashi has remained with the Cougars through these transitions.
“The team has changed dramatically since I was a freshman,” Shimbashi said. “When I was first on the team, we were terrible.”
However, last season, the Cougars hit a turning point when their wins and losses finally matched up, tallying a 12-12 record.
Following the completion of the 2018 season, former head coach Ed Gantt ended his service with the team after a four-year tenure. During his time as coach, the team earned its highest ranking, No. 8 in the West division of ACHA DII.
“I think coach Gantt was really good at hockey analysis,” assistant coach Jeremy Eisenstat said. “His hockey knowledge, compared to those I’ve met in my life, is up there with the best.”
Last spring, BYU announced the hiring of a new head coach for the 2019 season, Dave Pitcher. Eisenstat remained on board to help Pitcher adjust to the team. In addition to Pitcher, Roger Barrus accepted a spot in the lineup as an additional assistant coach.
A familiar face for BYU’s new head coach, junior Teagan Pitcher is happy to have his father on board. However, their hockey relationship remains professional.
“He was my coach up until I was 16 and we’ve been a father-son duo ever since I started playing hockey,” Teagan said. “He’s harder on me because I’m a captain rather than because I’m his son. When were outside of the rink, we don’t talk about hockey all that much. We keep hockey here.”
While each coach brings a different personality to the table, Pitcher recognizes his father has a different approach than others.
“Unlike other coaches, he likes to focus on what we can do right now or what are the positive things we can do rather than dwelling on the weaknesses in the past,” Teagan said. “The focus has changed from X’s and O’s and how well we played to the brotherhood of the team.”
In addition to coach Pitcher, Barrus adds a tender element to the team, using his so-called “kill them with kindness” method.
“Even if a guy isn’t doing well on the ice, I’ll pull him aside, give him a hug and be like ‘It’s all right man, we’ll work on it next practice,’” Barrus said. “It’s really hard to get upset and hate on someone that you love.”
BYU hockey continues to steadily improve since the coaching change, wrapping up the 2018-19 regular season with a 19-9 record and maintaining a .678 winning percentage.
However, according to the assistant coaches, the rapid progression of the team has less to do with the change in coaching staff and more to do with the team’s attitude and culture.
“I think the struggle we had last year was some attitude issues,” Eisenstat said. “There wasn’t as much team unity.”
Recognizing this detrimental weakness, the coaches stressed the importance of creating a brotherhood. Based off this season’s record, their method worked — so much so that Barrus believes this is the most close-knit group he’s seen since he started his hockey career in 1995.
“Unity is now their greatest strength and attribute,” Barrus said. “There’s not a crack in the dam. They don’t care who gets ice time or when as long as it’s the best for the team.”
Shimbashi agrees with the assistants, saying he believes the team’s culture contributed to the drastic changes among the seasons.
“Our strengths are definitely our brotherhood and our love for the gospel and Jesus Christ,” Shimbashi said. “I think it really ties us together because it gives us the encouragement as well as the perspective and incentive to work hard.”
Another strength of the team is that no clear MVP stands out due to a variety of skills among the team’s 22 players. Barrus believes this makes strategic planning difficult for their opponents.
“The funny thing is that when you’re our opponent, you can’t game plan,” Barrus said. “Typically, you’re looking at their best players or their best line, but since all of our players have amazing skills, there aren’t any that standout, so they can’t game plan against a certain player.”
BYU created history on several occasions because of this fresh start, including finishing the regular season on a six-game winning streak.
The final game of the Wasatch Cup tournament took place Feb. 2 between BYU and former Wasatch Cup champions, Utah State University. At the end of the night, BYU pulled off a 5-3 victory, becoming victors for the first time in BYU hockey program history.
The history-making continued on Feb. 9 when the Cougars defeated the Aggies on their home turf in Logan in a 2-0 shutout. In BYU’s 13 years as a team, this is the team’s first win against USU in Logan. This win also secured the Cougars’ first regular season title within the Mountain West Conference.
The conference win automatically gave BYU the chance to participate in the ACHA West Regional Tournament. The weekend’s games will determine which two winning teams will head to the national tournament in Dallas, Texas.
With nationals potentially in the picture, Barber couldn’t help but reflect on the team’s beginnings.
“I remember a loss of 14-2 against Utah State on our home ice and that hurt the soul,” Barber said. “No one likes losing that much. People didn’t have high expectations for BYU.”
BYU captains hope for a successful finish with a .178 jump in winning percentage over the course of a year.
“We know we have a lot of depth and skilled guys and we set our expectations high,” Barber said. “We’re going to regionals. Nationals is our goal, nothing short of it.”