Liberty men’s D1 hockey team prepares for highly anticipated season opener against NC State Icepack

As skates are sharpened and sticks are taped, it becomes apparent that hockey season is on the brink of arrival. 

Just over a week remains until the new-look Liberty men’s D1 hockey team graces the rink of the LaHaye Ice Center. The team that finished last season 13-7 with a trip to the ACHA D1 Final Four will be back on the ice for a fresh campaign — one that the Flames are hoping will end in the program’s first ACHA National title. 

New seasons mean new expectations, and leading his team into the fire with the “C” on his sweater for the first time is graduate forward Captain Matt Bartel.

“It’s been super fun to game plan with these guys and get the boys ready for the season,” Bartel said. “There’s a lot of new things that I’m learning how to do, whether it’s addressing the team, facilitating meetings between players and coaches, or talking to coaches about things that we want to implement. It’s a lot of new experiences, but it’s been super fun to take the reins and lead the boys this year.”

Also serving the Flames as alternate captains for the 2023-24 season are graduate forward Brett Gammer, senior forward DJ Schwenke and senior forward Nate Albers. 

“Obviously, Matt’s a great leader and I get to join him,” Albers said. “And the other two guys that we got, Brett and DJ, we’re all super motivated to have a successful season. The way we’re looking at it, we just want to make our team as good as possible and bring our guys as close as we can.”

The anticipated home opener at the LaHaye Ice Center will feature the ACCHL D2 NC State Icepack making the trip to Lynchburg to meet the Flames center ice. Last season Liberty opened the year with a thrilling 9-3 triumph over the Icepack. 

But while NC State may be a D2 program, the ice time will be vital in preparing the Flames for a long-awaited week two matchup against the 2023 ACHA D1 National Champion Minot State Beavers. 

It was the Beavers who overtook the Flames with an overtime goal in the semifinal of last season’s ACHA National Tournament. The Minot victory ended the Flames’ run after claiming a spot in the Final Four for the first time in program history. 

For Liberty, however, the memory now serves as motivation. 

“All the guys that we have coming back saw what it was like last year to get so close and what it will take to get the job done,” Bartel said. “Our goal is to get back to that point and get through that semi-final game and win (a national title).”

New talent on this year’s roster seems it will strengthen those chances of contending for an ACHA title. 

There are five new faces contributing to the Flames this season — defenseman Martin Marnauzs, forward Ryan Finch, defenseman Owen Lugowski, defenseman Kevin Bite and forward Mason Smith. 

While the team has only been practicing for a few weeks now, Bartel and Albers have seen glimpses of what rookie forwards Finch and Smith can bring to the offense that averaged four goals per game last season. 

In the case of Finch, the speed of the 21-year-old sticks out. A native of Raleigh, North Carolina, Finch spent the past two seasons in the North American Hockey League (NAHL) with the Kenai River Brown Bears in Soldotna, Alaska. He totaled 35 goals and 35 assists in 100 games. 

“From everything that’s been said about Finch, from the coaches and other people that I’ve talked to, he’s a player that’s fast and just really offensively minded and skilled,” Bartel said. “I’ve seen some hints of that so far in the few skates that we’ve had … Hopefully, he can put some pucks in the net for us this year.”

The other incoming forward, Smith, spent last season with the Kings in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, registering 17 goals and 26 assists in 54 games. 

“He’s one of those guys that’s (going to) be heavy,” Albers said, regarding Smith. “He’s looking to not only put the puck in the net, but also go throw somebody in the corner.”

The batch of new faces and personalities will undoubtedly bring a new dynamic to the group. The number of experienced Flames lacing their skates for another year with the program, however, may be the key to another historic Liberty hockey season.    

“The older guys know how the team works. We know what we want to be about and how we operate,” Albers said. “We know what it feels like to play in those big games and stuff like that. So, we can bring those few guys that came into the team along really easily as opposed to when we’ve got 10 or 12 guys that come in and we’re having to try to train those guys in the masses.”

Regardless of whether a player has been a Flame for three weeks or three years, the anticipation to get on the ice appears even across the board. 

“I think everybody is just off-the-charts excited,” Bartel said. “We’ve had some meetings already as a group and the talk in the locker room is all pointing towards a great group.”

The puck will drop for the men’s D1 hockey season Friday, Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. in the LaHaye Ice Center. The season-opener, along with every home game this season, will stream live on ESPN+. 

Cory is the sports editor for the Liberty Champion. Follow her on X

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