DI Flames Hockey reloaded, ready to be refined by fire this fall
An independent schedule that includes a much wider range of regular-season competition and 11 new faces on its 26-man roster are the major changes fans of Liberty University’s ACHA Division I men’s hockey team have to look forward to this fall.
Riding momentum from their first “Frozen Four” appearance in 13 years at the ACHA National Championships, the Flames open their 2021-22 season Friday at 7 p.m. against Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Saturday at 10 p.m. against North Carolina State University, both at the LaHaye Ice Center.
“Bringing in 11 new players, there will be a lot of energy and excitement around our program,” Head Coach Kirk Handy said. “We’re really looking forward to the guys who have been through the battle and who went a long way in the national tournament, but we really love the guys we’re bringing in as well. We really feel like we’ve got a lot of leadership there, a lot of guys who will fit really well with our team culture on and off the ice and will allow us to be a real successful program this year.”
He said one common trait among all 26 players is a supernatural work ethic.
“We’ve seen the group grow off the ice and seen them grow on the ice to be a team that’s going to compete hard and work hard,” Handy said. “I think we’re going to outwork our opponents every night we’re out there.”
He is especially interested in seeing how the 10 freshmen and one sophomore transfer respond in their first action in Flames jerseys this weekend.
“Now’s the fun part,” Handy said. “We get to see guys have opportunities and we’re going to give guys opportunities here early on in the year to see what we’ve got.”
In another change, Liberty will be permitted to play in front of 50-percent capacity crowds — up to 1,600 fans — for home games, compared to less than 10 percent last season (250) due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“Having a lot of fans is huge,” senior goalie Hunter Virostek said. “We can feed off the crowd, the energy is awesome. It’s a great experience for the whole campus and for our freshmen that missed out on it last year … it will be great.”
“That was one of the big reasons to come to Liberty,” senior defenseman and head captain Colin Baird added. “To get that back is going to be super exciting. I know my freshman year, I got to play with that energy and to hear the rink as loud as it can get is something special and I’m excited for our guys to get to play in that environment.”
After graduating the forward trio of Cole Gammer, Brock Thompson, and Quinn Ryan — Liberty’s first ACHA DI Player of the Year last season — as well as Ukrainian defensemen Dmytro Kobylyanskyi and Vitaliy Novytskyy, the Flames have reloaded their offensive lines and defensive pairings with top-level recruits.
“We had a big turnover on forwards this year, so we have a lot of new lines, a lot of new combos, so we’re going to have to build some chemistry, but we’re looking good,” graduate defenseman and alternate captain Chaydan Lauber said. “I think we’ll have a really solid team this year from the goaltenders up to the forwards. Everyone gets along really well and works hard together. Everyone’s bought in with the same goal, so I’m excited for this year.”
He believes with the additions of defensemen such as freshmen Matt Berezowski and Luke Heimann and the return of his counterpart Thomas Nagle, the Flames will be as formidable on the back line as they were last season.
“Right now, we’ve got four returners and four new guys on the blue line and it’s looking pretty solid this year,” Lauber said. “I think we’ve got a good mix this year of everything (but) I think our blue line will be a strength for us this year, for sure. I think it’s one of the deepest blue lines we’ve had since I’ve been here (and) we definitely have the best three goalies in the league, so I’m excited to get the year started.”
Offensively, the Flames will work by committee to generate as much firepower as they have had in previous seasons. Their forward lines have been reloaded with at least one newcomer on four of them.
DJ Schwenke, who returns to the only fully intact line with fellow sophomore Kris Bladen and junior Brett Gammer, doesn’t expect to see any dropoff in production this season, with players such as FCA Hockey product Jackson Vercellono and Kam Ottenbreit, a transfer from NCAA DIII Aurura (Ill.), added to the mix.
“I think we’re more balanced across the board,” Schwenke said. “Obviously, we lost Quinn Ryan and you can’t replace a guy like that, but we replaced him with a couple other guys who have similar skill and we’ll go from there.”
The Flames will be tested by fire on a regular basis this season, their first as an independent since 2015-16 after spending the past five years in the ESCHL. They will play two-game series both home and away against Jamestown (N.D.) and Minot State (N.D.), which ended its season in the national semifinals near St. Louis in April. Liberty will also travel to Chicago for a Nov. 19-21 showcase hosted by Illinois and featuring defending national champion Adrian College, Arizona State, UNLV, Minot, Davenport, and Rhode Island. The Flames will entertaining UNLV Jan. 28-29 at the LIC, with the second game being the last of three “Midnight Mayhem” matchups this season.
“(Being Independent) brings a whole new skill level that we’re going to have to compete with, (and) a whole extra work ethic that the guys are going to need to fight with,” Baird said. “It just opens up plenty of opportunity for us to prepare for nationals.”
“It’s not going to be easy,” he added. “There’s lots of really good teams this year and with lots of new guys that we have, it’s going to be a ton of hard work and as long as we are willing to put that work in, I think our ceiling is as high as we want it to be.”
Lauber is especially eager for the Flames’ Fall Break road trip to North Dakota, where they will challenge Minot and Jamestown four times in five days.
“It will be a long trip, but it will be exciting,” Lauber said. “I’ve never played at either of those two schools, so it will be fun. Obviously, we’ll be looking to get back into the win column against (Minot) and just build our confidence for nationals. They have pretty good fans up there, too, and they’re a good team and they work hard. It will definitely be a good test for us.”
Virostek said the team will make the most of its opportunities to be refined by regular-season clashes with ranked opponents as it looks to make an even deeper push at nationals, set for March 10-20 in St. Louis.
“Every chance on the ice is a chance to get better and improve,” Virostek said. “We’ve got a lot of new guys, we’ve got a lot of vets, so we can push them and then push for a national championship. I believe we can do it this year.”
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer; Video by Patrick Strawn/Club Sports Director of Video & Media