U-Mary adding hockey program

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Adding a hockey program had been whispered about in the hallways at the University of Mary for many years.

Things started heating up in recent months and now it appears to be a reality.

The university announced on Friday it is pursuing a men's hockey team to begin playing in the fall of 2018 at the ACHA Division I level. Minot State and the University of Jamestown also play at ACHA D-I level, where there are no athletic scholarships.

Making the decision to add hockey was made easier due to having a hall-of-fame coach already on staff. Dan Huntley, associate athletic director at U-Mary, will be the team's head coach.

"Certainly for me it was a no-brainer," said Huntley, who spent five years as head coach at Rainy River Community College (Minn.) and Northland College (Wis.). "To be able to get back into coaching and do it at the University of Mary was really a terrific opportunity. I can't wait to get started."

Acceptance into the ACHA is generally considered a formality. Mary will compete at the D-I level, which includes about 60 teams. Along with Minot State, traditional heavyweights include defending national champion Central Oklahoma, Ohio University, Illinois and Lindenwood (Mo.). Jamestown finished ranked 18th in the final top 25 poll last season.

NCAA Power 5 schools Oklahoma, Colorado, Colorado State, Utah, Arizona, Arizona State and Iowa State also field teams.

Huntley, who led Rainy River CC to the 1999 National Junior College Athletic Association national championship in 1999, hopes to build his program similarly to their neighbors from the east.

"We want to follow that same mold Jamestown did in terms of where we get our kids from and what kind of positive impact hockey can have on a small campus," Huntley said. "We're going to target student-athletes that want to get a great education, and now some of those kids will have the opportunity to play college hockey."

The new program should also help Mary reach another target. The university is attempting to expand its incoming freshman class to 500 students. With the current number at about 450, adding a 25-player hockey roster should put a dent in remaining total.

Huntley said they're not just seeking quantity, however. In fact, he'll be hitting the road Wednesday in search of recruits.

"This is a hockey community. We want to put a strong and competitive product on the ice and our administration is committed to doing that," said Huntley, who expects to be able to hire assistant coaches as well.

There's also competition for eyeballs and dollars with the NAHL's Bismarck Bobcats and a number of strong high school programs scattered around town.

"We want to create an atmosphere that is fun to come to and where people are going to be entertained, a lot like what we do with our football team and the tailgating and everything that goes on," Huntley said. "We're confident we can turn this into something people want to be a part of."

Jamestown and Minot like to attract local kids, but both primarily rely on players from Canada. Huntley will be targeting some of the same areas, but also has designs on keeping it local.

"We're going to be making connections with the high school coaches. We're going to be proactive in letting kids in Bismarck and Mandan know that if they want to come to the University of Mary and continue their athletic careers, we're going to have a really unique opportunity for them," said Huntley, who watched a lot of Mandan games last season where his son was student manager. "We want to keep local kids here. We want their families, and their grandparents and their girlfriends and their friends coming to the games. That's a big part in how we're going to sell the program."

Huntley also has another unique sales pitch.

"The players we bring into this program are going to have the opportunity to do something special and that's build a program from the ground up," Huntley said. "You look at what we're doing with the first (Mary) football team from the 30 years ago, we're bringing back about 45 of 55 players from that team to honor what they did.

"Someday, that's what we're going to be able to do with our hockey program. To me, that's special. That's what great universities do, and that's how we're going to build this hockey program."