Natasha Fryer makes her way across the Niagara University campus on a Wednesday night in late September.
Carrying a hockey bag over her shoulder, Fryer makes her way to Dwyer Arena where she meets up with other members of the university’s women’s club hockey team. By 10:30 the group of players skate onto the ice for practice.
Oh, what a difference a year makes.
Back in September 2011, NU had a Div. I women’s hockey team. Six months later, March 18 to be exact, the university announced the immediate contraction of women’s ice hockey as part of a restructuring of its intercollegiate athletics program.
So much for a program that was founded in 1998 and reached the national semifinals in just its fourth year in existence.
The announcement came without warning for all those concerned, including the head coach, Josh Sciba.
“When I took over as head coach about two weeks before the season began, there was never an inkling that something like this was coming,” Sciba recalls. “We were taking things one day at a time. We weren’t worried about the long term.”
The former head coach of the Lady Purple Eagles hockey team even felt there wasn’t any concern about the future as the season wore on. That all changed in March.
“We never found out until the day it was announced. We even had our first spring workout planned,” Sciba recalls.
“We had our athletic director and even our assistant athletic director come in and hold a brief meeting with the coaching staff. All they told us was that they were cutting the program for financial reasons. Then they asked us to gather the team together so that they could talk to the team.”
Today, women’s hockey survives at Niagara, but in the form of a club program.
Sciba remembers his initial reaction was one of concern for his players emotional well being. He then shifted his focus to finding somewhere for them to continue their hockey careers.
Most of the players found new opportunities on other college rosters. Four decided to stay at NU, including Fryer.
“When I first heard the news I was shocked,” she recalls. “I couldn’t believe it. There was nothing we could do about it. It was their [the university’s] decision. This came right out of the blue. No warning, nothing.”
Approaching her senior season, Fryer knew it would be difficult to cut ties with the Buffalo school so close to graduation. Fortunately, the university stepped up and honored her scholarship.
Helping ease the transition was the implementation of a club team that kept Fryer and others in the game.
“I was just happy to be back on the ice,” she says. “We have a great group of girls here who like to play hockey. We’ll have a great team this year.”
Rachel Hauser, assistant coach of the NU women’s club hockey team, played four seasons for the Lady Purple Eagles. As the first female player from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to play Div. I hockey, she remembers that “it was a sad day for hockey.” Still, she and others have decided to look forward rather than dwell on the past.
“For now we will keep things going with club hockey and hope that D-I hockey will come back sometime in the future. We’ve actually had club hockey here for a number of years,” Hauser says.
“I think it was great to have this club hockey team, especially for the seniors.Although it was not what they anticipated it would be, they’re still playing hockey.”
This season promises to be a little different for the team’s head coach Jason Elliott and his players, as well as their loyal following of women’s hockey fans.
“For now we will keep things going with club hockey and hope that D-I hockey will come back sometime in the future.”
“It’s exciting to be the only women’s hockey program here and to have some of the girls who stayed on here to play hockey with us,” Elliott says. “Women’s hockey is huge out here, and we want to build on it.”
As an independent team, Niagara is hoping to join the American Collegiate Hockey Association while looking to cultivate rivalries with other western New York schools.
“We’re looking at getting into the ACHA along with some other schools like the University of Buffalo. We’re hoping that some other colleges like Brockport, the [Rochester Institute of Technology], the University of Rochester and Oswego will get on board with us so we could form our own league,” Elliott says.
“This year we have 15 players on our team, with two more hopefully returning in the spring after their study abroad program is finished. Those numbers are up from what they were here a couple of years ago.”
While Div. I hockey programs pay for everything, club hockey operates differently. At NU, the school is paying part of the freight, but in the end the athletes shell out money to cover the rest.
Paige Sasser, a junior at NU, had options but chose to stay with the Purple Eagles and play club hockey.
“A lot of thought went into my decision to stay here. And I’m OK with it,” Sasser says.
“It’s a little different playing club hockey. But the girls are great, and the bottom line is that I’m back on the ice playing hockey.”
Maybe Hauser summed up the situation best.
“We’re still playing hockey,” she says. “Our banner hangs across the hall in the Feature Rink, and by these girls continuing to play club hockey, the dream of what we had won’t die.
“Who knows, maybe the D-I program will come back someday. We can only hope.”