The summer of 2014 brought news to the University of Washington Huskies hockey club that would change things around behind the bench…and the team as well. David Kell announced that he was stepping down from his position after ten seasons with the club. A four-time Pacific-8 Hockey Conference Head Coach of the Year (he shared honor with another coach in the 2008-09 season), Kell helped Washington win four I-5 Cup titles from the Oregon Ducks, and capture the conference tournament in back-to-back years (2011 & 2012). The 2011-12 season would be huge for the Huskies as they captured the conference title outright while earning the top seed entering the conference tournament with a 12-2-0-0 (regulation wins, regulation losses, overtime/shootout win, overtime/shootout loss) record.
The Huskies would finish 15th in the ACHA West Region rankings, good enough to participate in the ACHA Division 2 regional tournament in San Jose, California.
After Kell stepped down, the club announced that one of his assistants would be the one filling in his shoes. Matt Cleeton, who served two seasons under Kell, was selected to take over the club for the 2014-15 season.
And so began another new era of Husky hockey.
Last season, Cleeton carried 21 players – seven freshmen – under his wing along with the Huskies’ eventual all-time leading scorer in Ryan Minkoff, who is now playing hockey in Finland. Cleeton finished his first season as head coach with a 12-13-1-1 record.
New On-Ice Leadership
Cleeton selected four players to serve as captains over this past summer. With the departures of Minkoff and Branden Vandermoon, a new player would wear the ‘C’ as the team captain, while three other players would wear the ‘A’ to serve as alternate captains. Bradyn Kawcak (pronounced as Kaw-CHAK), who was the team’s alternate captain last season, was the obvious choice for captain. Cleeton had no doubt that the 6’2" senior forward from Fort Collins, Colorado, would be the right player wearing the ‘C’ for the Purple & Gold this season.
"Selecting Bradyn was an easy choice," said Cleeton. "I came to that conclusion because he made it that easy. From the time he has joined our team he has always been one of our hardest workers. He has pride in his game and always puts the team first. He's always (the) on the ice first, off the ice last-type of player and someone that is very easy to work with."
Kawcak joined the Huskies in his sophomore season, when he would pick up five points (one goal, four assists) in 23 games. Although he was a mere 62 points behind team leader Minkoff, Kawcak finished fifth in team scoring last season with 19 points (ten goals, nine assists) in which he played 23 games as well. This season, Kawcak – like many players on this season’s roster – has contributed in other areas that have nothing to do with goals or assists. However, with 12 points in 18 games played so far, Kawcak has made sure everyone understands that this is a team sport and that everyone contributes in order to win hockey games.
Instead of selecting just two players to wear the 'A' on their jerseys, Cleeton decided to have three alternate captains this season: 6’1" forward Alex Black (Boulder, Colorado), 6’4" junior defenseman Troy Gasser (Sammamish), and 5’10" forward Cory Tung (San Francisco, California).
Gasser is viewed as an emotional leader. He sticks up for his teammates when they are being roughed up and lends a hand whenever someone finds themselves in trouble. Whether it’s along the boards, the blue line, in the corners, or even in the crease after a scoring opportunity, Gasser makes sure their opponents don’t stand in his way. The biggest highlight of the year so far for him was scoring a goal along the half boards at the red line in the Huskies’ 12-6 road win over the Washington State University Cougars in Spokane.
Black has been the main offensive force on the team. His Halloween night performance proved that as the Huskies ignited a comeback while down 6-4 late in the game at home against Western Washington University. After a Jordan Fitzgibbon goal, he would assist on the game-tying goal that freshman defenseman Ryan Jaromin (pronounced jah-ROW-min) would score and force overtime before Black ended the game with the game-winner on his own in a wild 7-6 win.
Tung gives everything he has on the ice each night. A few times he has put on breakaway situations, giving goalies a scare. He has beaten them three times this season. He has been a big help to Kawcak, Gasser, and Black in keeping the team loose in the locker room and in pre-game warmups.
Amongst the captains, they have played 74 combined games with a combined total of 74 points (25 goals, 49 assists).
New Beginnings, New Players
Cleeton now has 26 players on this season’s roster, with 15 newcomers – nine of them freshman.
"The underclassmen efforts have been pretty good so far," said Cleeton. "At times inconsistent, but that is expected most of the time with 15 new guys trying to learn how to play with each other. It has been great to have some of them hop on the PP and PK thus far through the season and make contributions there."
One of them making huge contributions is another member filling heavy shoes but doing so unexpectedly and by surprise to many. Tavin Jackson, the young freshman from across the Bellingham Bay in the tiny town of Point Roberts, has made a huge impact on the team, posting Minkoff-like numbers through 16 games played. He leads the team in scoring with 33 points (19 goals, 14 assists), and although Cleeton knew how good Jackson was prior to coming to the UW, he has been impressed with Jackson’s efforts despite being an underclassman.
"We knew that Tavin would be a good player for us. He showed up right before training camp. We had a skate over the summer that he attended, and we liked what he brought but we did not expect him to lead the team in points at this point in the season. It has been a wonderful surprise and good competition for the other guys on the team."
Expectations have been high so far this season and like the underclassmen, the veterans have been meeting their expectations too. Take Black, who was predicted by many to be the new scoring leader on the ice. Although he trails Jackson by only two points in the team scoring lead, Black has been the lead set up man on the team whenever the Huskies prepare to score at any given second.
"With Alex Black being our returning point leader, it has been great to see these two compete for the lead," says Cleeton, whose Huskies team will be coming out of the holiday break with a 10-7-1-1 record. "The second half of the season should be fun to see with these two battling for that top spot."
Other than Jackson, five more newcomers on this season’s team already have double-digit points scored.
Freshman center Christian Cinderella (Sammamish), who is also playing with the Western States Hockey League’s Seattle Totems, is averaging a point per game (3-16-19 slash line) in all 19 games. Like Cinderella, Jaromin (8-9-17) and freshman forward Mason Friedman (7-6-13) have also played all 19 of the team’s games. Freshman forward Devin Garg (Lake Oswego, Oregon), seen as the fastest skater on the team, shares 18 points (8-10) in 14 games with veteran junior forward JD White (Kenmore, 9-9). And freshman forward Lucas Semkiw (pronounced as SEM-‘q’; San Jose, California) is averaging a point per game (4-7) in 11 games.
Striving for Consistency
It’s no doubt that Jackson’s scoring barrage has been a surprise, but the Huskies’ opponents have surprised the team as well. In October, after the shocking 1-1 tie on home ice versus Oregon in Game #2 of the I-5 Cup, in which Ducks forward Joe Hoover tied the game with 0.8 seconds left in regulation, the Huskies went to Spokane for three games. Washington would lose to the Gonzaga University Bulldogs in the only regular season meeting of the year. The Huskies resumed conference play against WSU. On the first game of their two-game weekend meeting at the Eagles Ice-A-rena, the Cougars shocked the Huskies, 7-4. It would be WSU’s first win over UW in almost eight seasons.
The Huskies would win the next afternoon, taking a 12-6 win and the regular season series, 3-1. Since then, Washington has had its share of wins and losses but as the team keeps growing and learning, Cleeton sees a team that shows no quit in them.
"I think our team has learned a lot," says Cleeton. "Going through the ups and downs that we have this season I think will help us with the second half of our schedule. For example, our trip to Spokane earlier in the year. We really didn't achieve the results we wanted. I think that weekend opened up some of the guys’ eyes that it is very important that you need to prepare well before every game no matter who the opponent is. Also, we are learning the very valuable lesson of being consistent in everything we do. Consistency has come and gone with the team so far and we are definitely looking for more of that during the second half."
Season Schedule Advantage
The majority of the conference schedule is almost complete. With more non-conference games on this season’s schedule – a majority of the conference games took place in October and a couple in November – the Huskies do not worry how the schedule is whenever they have fewer conference games in either the late or in the early part of the regular season.
"I do not think there is too much of an advantage scheduling the majority of the conference games during the first half. Usually we look to schedule a few non-conference opponents that will give us a good challenge before seeing conference foes in the first half. Most of the time it’s just (a matter of) what works out while making the schedule. But whether more of the Pac-8 games are first half or second half, there isn't too much of an advantage. All Pac-8 games are important and are not overlooked."
Graduate Mentors the Goalies
The freshman goaltending duo of Jeff Miles (Cardiff, California) and Debbie Chen (Taoyuan, Taiwan) know that they will be competing for the starting roles this season and beyond. Miles has been getting the majority of the starts playing in 13 games and has gone 5-7-1-0, 5.20 goals against average, and a .841 save percentage.
And the thanks go to James Feldman (Anchorage, Alaska), who is currently in a graduate program at the UW. Feldman (4-0-0-1) is undefeated in regulation play but has suffered his only defeat in an overtime loss (4-3) to Western Washington on December 5th at the Bellingham Sportsplex. But his guidance to both Miles and Chen has been pretty smooth. Not bad for having three goaltenders, if and when Feldman is available, of course. Due to work and school commitments, Feldman is not available on most road trips, but whenever he is at the Olympicview Arena, he is ready for game night regardless if he is playing or not. And that helps Cleeton a lot when he has three goalies available on the roster, especially when writing out his lineup card and to have Feldman by his side on the ice and on the bench.
"It does help because in case someone has a bad night, we can have one of the other goalies pick them up. It also creates good competition within the pipes to keep them on their toes about who will be getting the next start. James has been a great help with this so far, helping mentoring Jeff and Debbie during practices and games."
Playing Opportunities for Women on Men’s Clubs
Chen is another good asset to have. Like Feldman, she is sharing the backup duties. She came on the ice for the first time in her career on October 10th when the Huskies had an absolute bad night in a neutral ice road game in Boise against the Montana Tech Orediggers. Miles was taken out of the game with 13 minutes in the second period after giving up the eighth Oredigger goal of the night. Chen wouldn’t have a good experience in her first game, either, as she would finish the period with four goals allowed – two within five seconds apart.
Chen’s first career game appearance was completely forgotten on the afternoon of November 22nd in Portland when the Huskies took on the Portland State University Vikings. She was named the starter for this game and for 60 minutes, she played stellar, giving up only two goals off of 24 shots to become the first female goaltender in the hockey club’s history to win in goal. Having a woman play in a men’s division of collegiate club hockey is something special to the team and to create an opening for women like Chen especially having more opportunities to play is a step in the right direction to possibly creating a women’s team at the UW for the foreseeable future.
"I think that it’s great to have a female on the roster," says Cleeton. "Without a consistent women's team on campus yet, we are the only team to provide a true opportunity for women. We came into training camp with an open mind about Debbie. Right from the get-go we could tell that she was fundamentally sound. She really earned her spot on the team and all of the coaches are proud of her growth and her compete level thus far though the season. She's great to have on the team."