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Catamounts at a Club Level: ACHA Program Keeps Locals on the Ice

  • University of Vermont Club Hockey Team's Ben Peters blocks a Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute player at UVM's Gutterson Fieldhouse in Burlington, Vt., on Friday, Jan. 31, 2014. (Valley News - Andy Duback)

    University of Vermont Club Hockey Team's Ben Peters blocks a Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute player at UVM's Gutterson Fieldhouse in Burlington, Vt., on Friday, Jan. 31, 2014. (Valley News - Andy Duback)

  • University of Vermont Club Hockey Team's Luke Ceplikas brings the puck up the ice against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at UVM's Gutterson Fieldhouse in Burlington, Vt., on Friday, Jan. 31, 2014. (Valley News - Andy Duback)

    University of Vermont Club Hockey Team's Luke Ceplikas brings the puck up the ice against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at UVM's Gutterson Fieldhouse in Burlington, Vt., on Friday, Jan. 31, 2014. (Valley News - Andy Duback)

  • University of Vermont Club Hockey Team's Ben Peters blocks a Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute player at UVM's Gutterson Fieldhouse in Burlington, Vt., on Friday, Jan. 31, 2014. (Valley News - Andy Duback)
  • University of Vermont Club Hockey Team's Luke Ceplikas brings the puck up the ice against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at UVM's Gutterson Fieldhouse in Burlington, Vt., on Friday, Jan. 31, 2014. (Valley News - Andy Duback)

The University of Vermont men’s club hockey team didn’t return to Burlington until 4 a.m. Monday, the result of a road game at Providence (R.I.) College the night before. The trip was tinged with disappointment following a 7-3 loss during the Catamounts’ final contest of the season, but the group of roughly 25 players and coaches also enjoyed each other’s company as the miles rolled past.

“The bus ride was long, but it was still fun to have our last little bit of team bonding,” said junior wing Ben Peters, one of three Hanover High graduates and five Upper Valley players on the roster.

Peters’ teammates include fellow juniors and ex-Marauders Dan Elliot and David Leskovar and one-time Lebanon High standouts Luke Ceplikas and Nick Dube. Vermont was 7-11 in the American Collegiate Hockey Association this winter, but the program allows more than 30 UVM students to continue playing careers that otherwise would have likely ended after high school.

“It’s a perfect level of hockey for me,” said Ceplikas, a defenseman who considered playing junior hockey and attempted to land an NCAA Division III roster slot before coming to Burlington. “It’s just serious enough to feel you’re playing at a good level, but you’re still having fun.”

Each of the Catamounts pays about $700 in annual fees, plus providing their own equipment. Another $500 or so has been required the past two seasons if a player has made the travel squad for a two-game trip to play at powerful Florida Gulf Coast University. UVM’s student government also offers some financial assistance, and the 11-year-old club stages occasional fundraisers.

Vermont is one of more than 400 teams in the 23-year-old ACHA, which includes three men’s divisions and two women’s divisions with programs in all U.S. states but Hawaii. The Catamounts battle foes such as Maine, Rensselaer, Keene State, Boston University, Massachusetts, Norwich and Southern New Hampshire. The team practices twice a week at rinks in the Burlington area and plays on campus at Gutterson Field House, the same building used by the school’s men’s and women’s varsity teams.

Tryouts in September attract around 60 players, and the game schedule runs from October to February, possibly into March if there’s a playoff run.

“I think people would be surprised at how big club hockey’s getting,” said Peters, noting that there are regional and national playoffs and an ACHA all-star game. “It’s not goon hockey. People are trying to skate and score and not to kill each other out there.”

Dan Sherburne, the team’s seventh-year head coach, previously coached at Rice Memorial High in South Burlington and installs and maintains phone, surveillance and security systems for a career. The 54-year-old has seen the club raise its standards from riding to away games in vans and playing before empty stands to enjoying the use of coach buses and drawing hundreds of fans to some home contests.

“It’s very organized, and the talent level increases every year, which makes it harder for some of the upperclassmen,” said Sherburne, who cut six returning seniors two years ago. “We’re getting more and more kids who played junior hockey or at prep school. The guys want to play better competition and see how they match up with the best (club) programs in the Northeast.”

Ceplikas, a junior and the son of Dartmouth College deputy director of athletics Bob Ceplikas, was voted the club team’s captain after his sophomore season, and he and the club’s officers and coaches run a tight ship. Roughly 10 players are healthy scratches for each game, sitting out the contest and asked to assist with running the scoreboard, videotaping the action or attending the penalty boxes.

“Every Friday morning, I have 10 or 11 guys who aren’t happy with me,” Sherburne said. “The truth hurts sometimes, but hopefully they take that as motivation to get better not just in hockey, but in the next chapter of life.”

The toughest scratches the past two campaigns have been those made before the Florida trip. This season, Elliott was one of those left behind. However, Sherburne said the forward responded with dramatic improvement and notched a hat trick during one game against Maine.

“He got really upset with me, but I feel we reaped the benefits because he raised his play to a whole new level,” the coach said. “As far as fundamentals, he’s not the prettiest guy to watch, but he sure makes up with it in his work ethic.”

Dube, a goaltender, battled three other netminders for time this winter, getting into three ACHA games, and Peters, the grandson of former Dartmouth athletic director Seaver Peters, skated regularly on the top three lines when he wasn’t out with a concussion. Leskovar played in seven ACHA games on defense, and Ceplikas was a mainstay and came in for special praise from Sherburne.

“He’s very serious and focused, and the other guys look up to him,” the coach said. “He’s not your normal kid who comes along every day. He and I are very close, and he takes care of a lot of issues before they get to me.”

UVM began the season with a five-game losing streak, and Ceplikas said he and other leaders had to put their collective foot down.

“There was a lot of finger-pointing in the locker room, which was tough to deal with,” said the public communications major. “I just reminded everybody we were all here for the same reason and that the coaches’ decisions are those they honestly think will win us the next game.”

Peters said the club team has been a great fit and that he’s encouraging his younger brother, Tom, a Hanover High senior, to attend UVM and join the squad’s ranks.

“Playing a varsity sport can be like having a job, because it’s a long season and you can lose out on other things on campus,” Peters said. “This has worked out perfectly for me. The amount we play and the level of the team are exactly what I wanted.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.