BYU hockey celebrate becoming Mountain West Conference Champions for the first time in program history. (Mindy Pitcher)

The puck stops here — players mourn the loss of BYU hockey

It’s safe to say that Chase Christensen is a hockey diehard.

The senior from Spanish Fork has played competitive hockey for more than 20 years, including the past five as a forward for BYU’s hockey team, where he currently serves as captain.

“Growing up, literally all I did was play hockey, think about hockey, and watch hockey,” Christensen said. “I’m always watching games and drawing up plays on paper. I look forward to nothing else but hockey.”

It’s this love of hockey that makes it especially difficult to swallow BYU’s recent cancellation of the team from its extramural lineup, a decision that left Christensen in shock.

“It was devastating for me,” Christensen said. “I personally wouldn’t have come to BYU at all had it not been for the hockey team. It’s important to think of hockey here as more than just a sport, it’s like a family for us.”

On June 19, BYU hockey announced that the school would be ending its contractual relationship with the team following the coming season, a blindside shot to program’s players and fans.

“There are a lot of people on our (social media) feeds or that we’ve spoken with who have expressed their disappointment and sadness,” Christensen said. “It’s all about the joy that (hockey) brings to us, the fans, our friends and families. When this news came out it was a blow to them.”

The team originated in 1996 as the Provo Icecats, an independent club team that was mainly comprised of BYU students before being sponsored by the school as an extramural sport. For the past 15 years, the team has played under the BYU name in the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA).

“Everyone’s always speculating (about cancellation) in club sports because nobody’s spot is ever certain, but when it boils down to it, we never saw it coming,” senior captain Teagan Pitcher said. “We had a pretty good relationship with the school and it felt like we were constantly improving ourselves, so it really took us by surprise.”

Under extramural status, the team’s affiliation with BYU is essentially nothing more than wearing the school’s logo. Operating independently from the athletic department, BYU hockey receives no financial support from the school. Recruiting comes mainly through scouting local high school talent and accepting applications online. The team is unable to offer scholarships, is limited in on-campus marketing and fundraises entirely from donors, ticket sales and out-of-pocket player fees.

“To have put in all this time and effort to build the program ourselves without money from the school.. It’s heartbreaking,” Pitcher said. “In some ways (cancellation) does feel unjust.”

The program had grown sizably over the past five years as interest spread around campus, which Pitcher and Christensen both mentioned as a factor for their shock and disappointment at the decision.

“Chase and I went from having maybe 20 friends and family members in the stands our freshman year to having more than 1,500 fans at every game,” Pitcher said. “We have an excellent marketing team that helps produce fans at our games. Being a player on the team means that you meet people on campus, and that’s because they’re coming to games outside of school. Our family is beyond just the players.”

In addition to fans in the stands, the quality of play on the ice has leaped ahead in recent years as well. The Cougars swept all four games against rival Utah State in last year’s pandemic-shortened season and even won the Mountain West Collegiate Hockey League championship in 2019.

“Part of doing good with the BYU name.. is winning,” Christensen said.

“We went from losing every game to winning regional playoff games,” Pitcher said. “It’s been a long road, and to see that it’s falling apart is pretty sad to be part of.”

Additionally, BYU hockey has proven to excel off the ice, receiving a prestigious community service award from The American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) in 2019 for their volunteer work as a team at various projects around Utah Valley.

“We’ve spent a lot of time not just at practices and games but at community service projects,” Pitcher said. “We’ve won national service awards as a team, and a lot of that comes from our focus in going forth and serving.”

Such service is just one example of the team’s spiritual foundation, fostered in part by frequent team prayer, devotionals from the coaches and team testimony meetings. Christensen sees it as a unique and largely unnoticed aspect of the program that will be one of the biggest overall losses.

“We’ve had a number of 18-year-olds who come to BYU to play hockey and have decided to serve missions because of the influence of returned missionaries on the team,” Christensen said.

“When you’re spending that much time in an environment that fosters your spirituality, you definitely gain a stronger testimony,” Pitcher added.

According to Pitcher, the family dynamic of the team and its spiritual backbone have served as a “sanctuary” from the rest of the world, an uplifting atmosphere seemingly unheard of in typical hockey culture.

“By comparison, if you go into any other hockey locker room anywhere, profanity and vulgarity prevail,” Pitcher said. “When you go into the BYU hockey locker room, it’s the most refreshing thing on the planet. You feel like you finally have like-minded people who are willing to talk about spiritual things and embrace the spiritual side of their lives.”

Pitcher also believes that the loss of the program will let down the next generation of young hockey players in the area.

“We don’t have a lot of hockey representation on the West Coast, especially not in Utah County,” Pitcher said. “For a lot of fans that live here, these are the games that they want to go see, especially for the little kids who want to grow up and play hockey. It’s heartbreaking for them, too.”

Despite the sting of the team’s incoming expiration date, Pitcher and company are keeping their focus on leaving it all on the ice for one last season. BYU Hockey kicks off its final campaign with a four game homestand starting Sept. 10 at Peaks Ice Arena.

“We’re trying to represent the school the best we can and show that we’re a BYU hockey team and don’t want to ride under any other name,” Pitcher said. “We have the talent this year to go far. As players, the only thing we feel that we can do at this point is put together a program that raises eyebrows, gets work done and wins games.”

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