Under the radar: Ice hockey club team still runs on loyalty, dedication

The USC hockey team during its 6-5 victory over UCLA in Game 2 of the Crosstown Cup. (Photo courtesy of USC Hockey Twitter page)

The buzzer sounds, and the players raise their arms in celebration, streaming off the bench. The final score reads: USC 6, UCLA 5. “We Are the Champions” blares as players pass around the Crosstown Cup and exchange hugs.

Outside, a fan in USC colors tells assistant coach Jerry Toy, “As long as you’re still standing, UCLA will never get that cup again.” Sharon Vazquez, the mother of team captain Aidan Vazquez, excitedly shows off a text she received from Aidan’s brother — watching the live stream on YouTube from Arizona — after Aidan scored a goal.

This isn’t a football game or even a basketball game. It’s a men’s hockey game late on a Friday night in the middle of November, all the way at the Anaheim Ducks’ practice facility in Orange County.

Most USC students wouldn’t know the first thing about the ice hockey club team at USC. But if students were to make the hour-and-a-half drive through rush hour traffic to experience a game, they would find a dedicated group of nearly 40 players and a volunteer group of coaches and staff. They would find the stands full of mostly parents and close friends of the players. And they would see a team that is one of USC’s oldest —  it first started in 1924.

A historic club

An article from 1925 published in USC’s yearbook, El Rodeo, describes the origins of the team. It sprouted as the first ice skating rink in Los Angeles, the Palais de Glace, was built.

“By unceasing effort and enthusiasm of purpose on the part of the vitally interested and the students of the University,” the story stated, “the school authorities were shown that hockey was deserving of support as a University sport.”

The story notes a large turnout from the start for practices and is optimistic about the future of the sport. In the following year’s issue of the yearbook, the team was described as one that “brought honor to the school” and, by 1927, the program was “forging rapidly to the front as one of the most popular” —  it lost just one game all season.

A Sports Illustrated article published in 1987 recounts a fierce rivalry in the 1930s between USC and Loyola Marymount University, with fans packing the 5,000-seat Polar Palace — which burned down in a fire in 1963 — at the corner of Melrose and Van Ness avenues near Hollywood. The games even drew celebrities, including actor Bing Crosby. According to the Daily Trojan archives, the team received regular beat coverage in the ‘30s and game updates appeared often in the student paper until the mid-2000s.

“This is one of the older, more robust club sports teams,” said Jeff Dralla, the team’s general manager.

Dralla graduated from USC in 2006 and spent five years playing for the team before serving as head coach and currently as general manager. According to Dralla, the program has survived this long because it hasn’t undergone much change. Over the last 25 years, there have only been four different head coaches.

“More important than skill on the team, more important than quality of coach is the overall stability in program,” Dralla said. “One false move, one really bad financial year, one misstep in budget or an issue with USC from a policy perspective and the program is out the door.”

Funding and distance

Unlike in the 1930s, the club hockey team is no longer a well-known commodity around campus. It undergoes the typical struggles that any club team goes through with funding, travel and recruitment. Dralla, who also serves as the associate director for the Pac-8 conference, which USC is part of, said the administration doesn’t give the hockey team the sort of special privilege when it comes to recruiting that the football or basketball teams may receive in terms of academics.

Though the team receives the maximum funding of $8,000 from the Recreational Club Council, that amount is barely enough to finance one road trip, according to Andrew Philps, the team president.

“We are the largest budget far and away for any club sport,” said Philps, a junior majoring in real estate development.

Dralla said the budget runs in excess of $100,000. Hockey is an expensive sport, requiring gear, jerseys and ice. The majority of the team’s funding comes from donations and member dues, which are close to $4,000 a year.

Around half the program’s budget is spent on ice time alone. Because there is no rink near campus, the team plays its games at the Ducks’ practice facility in Anaheim and practices in Lakewood —  20 miles away from USC — once a week on Mondays from 10 p.m. to midnight. The late start time is due to both the availability of the players, who are in class all day and the lower cost.

“We try to cram everything in,” head coach Tyler Maxwell said. “It’s all about them getting the rust off, getting touches in.”

The distance between the team’s home rink and campus — the team travels further to play their home games than road games against Loyola Marymount, UCLA and Cal State Northridge — keeps away many would-be USC hockey fans. According to Anthony Ciardelli, who covered the team when he was a graduate student at USC and now broadcasts their games, the team will eventually need to have its own rink if it wants to take the next step of becoming a Division I program. He said that would cost around $100 million.

“You need to make it closer so students can go, but how much space is there on the USC campus to do it?” Ciardelli said. “That’s a major barrier and a major issue.

What isn’t an issue is the commitment of those involved in the program. Everyone on staff, from the coaches to the medical staff, volunteers their time.  

“No,” said Toy, chuckling when asked if he is paid as an assistant coach. “We put a lot of time in, but we don’t get paid.”

Toy, who also coaches the women’s ice hockey club team at USC, does not miss a single team event.

“Every practice, every game, every function,” he said.

Student run

The program, like all club sports, is student run. There is a president, vice president, treasurer and social media director. Sharon Vazquez, who helps with game operations, said there are only certain things she can help with.

“I wish I could do more, but it’s student run,” Vazquez said. “We need to hold them accountable. They need to run this. That’s really important. That’s going to pay off in the long run. They’re learning a lot of things, life skills.”

Running a program with a $100,000 budget means the players have to balance their time properly. According to Dralla, players’ grades are usually higher over the course of the season than they are in March or April, when the season is less organized.

“We’re forced to be more structured,” said Keegan Jones, a sophomore majoring in business administration, who acts as the social media director for the team.

All of the work put in lends itself to a team that is close, both on and off the ice, providing an outlet for those who came to USC from hockey-crazed parts of the country to keep playing the game they love.

“To be able to go to school in a place like Southern California, but also play on a team where it’s not so demanding like a Division I sport, we still have that teammate feel and the vibe,” Jones said.

Travis Schwartz, who is from Dix Hills, N.Y., is in his fifth year on the team and could not imagine coming to Los Angeles and not playing hockey.

“Freshman year, it gave me my friend group,” said Schwartz, a senior majoring in business administration. “I didn’t have to go through any process to find my friend group. I just automatically had my close friends.”

Those bonds were apparent that Friday night in Anaheim, when the team emerged victorious from a chippy, intense game against their crosstown rivals. They stayed on the ice for 20 minutes after the game ended, passing around the trophy, taking group pictures and celebrating with friends and family who had made the long commute from Los Angeles.

And those bonds are apparent in people like Maxwell, who coaches this team out of passion and love rather than money. He wants to see it grow, and still be at USC the day it rises to a Division I program.

“I’m in it for the long haul, not the quick buck,” Maxwell said.