Cardinals Flying High: Louisville Building Through the MIAA

For prospective student-athletes from the MIAA, there are a lot of options to play collegiate hockey. Everyone knows about the NCAA gold standard: Division 1 hockey, but there are only 60 current programs with spots available. Next comes Division 2 hockey, but only seven schools fielded a team last season which means even fewer spots. Then there is Division 3 hockey, which features 50 teams, increased academic rigor and by-and-large it’s where many players that are unable to make the athletic cut at the D1 level play. But, don’t forget about ACHA (aka club) hockey route, which boasts a robust 400+ men’s teams all across the nation.

One such team shares its athletic facilities with power conference cohorts in football and basketball: the University of Louisville. There is no doubt that sports fans have heard of NBA and NFL star players that have come through those programs. Those names include Terry Rozier, Donovan Mitchell, Russ Smith, Johnny Unitas, Ted Washington, Deion Branch, and of course Lamar Jackson. What you may not know about the Cardinals is the growth of their ACHA Division II hockey program over the last few seasons.

At the helm since 2011 has been head coach Brian Graham, who is no stranger to the New England area, having played and coached previously in Connecticut. Prior to joining the Cardinals he coached at the University of Kentucky for two years and led the Wildcats to two winning seasons. On his staff, you will find assistant coach Kyle Hughes, who just wrapped up his first season behind the bench. We recently caught up with Coach Hughes to discuss hockey in Kentucky, how they’ve gone about building their team and the appeal of club hockey for MIAA players.

MassNZ: Can you first start off by telling me about the Louisville club program? How long has it been around?

Coach Hughes: We play in the Tri-State Collegiate Hockey League (TSCHL) conference with teams like Indiana University, Miami of Ohio, Ohio State, Xavier, Ohio, Dayton and Bowling Green. We compete in the Southeast region for the postseason and the format is similar to college baseball. We play 30 regular-season games and practice on-ice three times a week with games every Friday and Saturday from early September until late March (hopefully). This is our 24th season as a program, although we had a few years on hiatus. We play at a rink that’s 15 minutes from campus with our own locker room and we have a great fan base in a city that lives and breathes the Cards.

MassNZ: How did you come to join the organization along with Coach Graham?

Hughes: I went to Western New England for two years in Springfield and was looking at cheaper schools that had quality sports management programs and saw the Louisville Sports Management Program highlighted in ESPN The Magazine. I sent an email to Coach Graham who happened to be in Connecticut at the same time so he gave me a call and I met him in Hartford the next day. I visited Louisville, loved the city, school, and program and I’ve been here ever since. I’m going into my second season on the bench after being a player for three years, then a scout/recruiter for two years after that. Coach Graham had a similar path where he went to AIC in Springfield for two years then ended up in Kentucky. He has been the Head Coach since 2011 where he rescued this program when it was on the cusp of falling apart and turned it into a three-time champion (2015-17).

Iceland Sports Complex, home of UofL Hockey

MassNZ: Can you talk about the interest in the program and how it’s grown over the years? Have you seen a lot of interest from the community in the program?

Hughes: When Brian took over he started by finding student athletes that had some hockey experience who went to the school. Then he started going out and recruiting and at first he started by looking locally. Now we have had players from all over the world: Australia, Alberta, Ontario, New England, Chicago, Minnesota, Texas, etc. The interest in our program has skyrocketed.

We have a huge fan base here in Louisville and a big impact on youth hockey. The youth hockey program has changed their name to the Ice Cardinals and there are so many kids that have started playing hockey because of their exposure to our team. We have around 200 kids each year under the age of 10 starting to learn hockey with a huge retention rate. Kids are going to our games and also have the opportunity to play for the Nashville Predators Little Preds Program in our rink, which has just been a huge success.

A lot of our fans are new hockey fans that have never seen the game before and end up going to one game and falling in love with it. We are treated very well here: the fans see our players in the same light as football stars like Lamar Jackson. It’s really incredible and not many other ACHA programs have that. We get recognized around the city out in public. We are the highest level of hockey in the state and if you throw a Cardinal bird on a jersey the UofL faithful will come to support.

MassNZ: What is the “sell” like for hockey in Kentucky?

Hughes: The “sell” is you get to go to a great school that’s way cheaper than a lot of New England schools. The cost of living is far cheaper; in fact, it’s one of the cheapest cities in the country to live in and was voted a Top US Destination. The weather is a lot warmer (it’s in the 90s in October) and there are campus area pools everywhere. As I mentioned, we have a great fan base that comes to our games, it’s a solid level of hockey, you get to play for two New England coaches and have 14 teammates that played New England hockey. Basically we have a more attractive program than most small NCAA schools where we offer the opportunity to play at a big southern university with a solid fan base while getting a great affordable education in a city that was voted a Top US Destination. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that the Kentucky Derby is located virtually on our campus.

MassNZ: How do you go about finding players? Are there local players who you keep your eye on?

Hughes: We are somewhat limited by our location in finding talented hockey players. It’s mostly all done online and we look everywhere. We scour Juniors, Prep, and high school hockey all over the world. If I can get to games when I go home for Christmas I will. This past Christmas break I saw 12 different MIAA teams play in the span of six days. Brian and I will recruit from anywhere but we mostly focus on New England since that’s where we are both from. We know the coaches there and have a solid knowledge of the level of hockey whereas video can be deceiving sometimes if you don’t know what the hockey is like in-person.

MassNZ: Let’s talk about your recruiting class for next year, some of whom you’ve promoted via Twitter. Who are some of the players you are excited to bring on campus?

Hughes: We really haven’t released our recruiting class yet as we tend to fully announce in July and August when we have it finalized. Coronavirus has pushed a lot of the recruiting process later into this year and we are still recruiting every day. We also have the luxury of our school working with us so deadlines don’t really apply to us. If you are a prospective MIAA player or coach with a player in mind, give us a call! We are excited about our commits so far. There are a few high school kids with most other players coming from juniors. We aren’t a program that cares what age you are. If you are good enough to play and be in our top 26? You will make the team. The same applies on game night: if you are good enough to be in the top 20 you will be suiting up.

MassNZ: We noticed that you have been recruiting a lot of MIAA players for your team, most notably one of the top public high school players in Cam Costa of Burlington HS. What is it about MIAA players that you like enough to build your team around?

Hughes: We have seven players that have played MIAA hockey on our current roster. We have 70 towns, juniors, prep, and NCAA schools in New England represented on our roster since 2013. Even if the player isn’t from New England they most likely played juniors or prep there. Personally, I love recruiting from the MIAA. There are a ton of kids out there that have the talent but don’t want to play juniors to go the D3 route. That doesn’t just include the Super 8 power schools. We do have kids from MIAA power schools like Ryan Cote from Arlington but we also have John Purcell from a D2 school like Nauset. If he had wanted to play D3 NCAA hockey after juniors there’s no doubt in my mind he would be able to. I don’t think we are far off from that level of play right now. It helps that many NCAA programs won’t take 18-year-old public high school players and some ACHA programs don’t want the 18-year-old freshman: but we do. I love seeing and helping these kids become successful people and successful hockey players. Most MIAA players can quickly adjust to our level of hockey and playing against 25-year-old seniors. The adjustment period for high school and some junior players varies but MIAA players tend to adjust quicker. We have had players that came from the BCHL, NAHL, or transfer from NCAA schools and one of our all-time leading scorers is Derek Piekarczyk who played for Auburn HS and he had no desire to pursue NCAA D3 hockey.

Former Auburn HS F Derek Piekarczyk
Former Shrewsbury HS D Cole Vincequere

MassNZ: Can you talk about the club hockey path and what some MIAA players may not know about the recruitment process? It’s very different from D1, D2 and D3 hockey for sure.

Hughes: It all varies from school to school. Typically, the schools in big hockey markets don’t recruit: they have 100+ kids show up at tryouts. We don’t have that luxury but honestly, I love recruiting and picking out the team Brian and I want. I highly suggest all MIAA players out there should look into programs in the ACHA and contact the coaches on their programs’ website. We aren’t able to get to that many games and tournaments in-person like other programs that have great hockey talent in their backyard and the budget to travel. Basically, Brian and I use Christmas as a recruiting vacation where he sticks to southern Connecticut and I cover northern Connecticut and Massachusetts. We also look online at players, we look into their social media to make sure they’re the type of kids we would want to pursue, and then we watch the video. I probably have watched parts of over 100+ MIAA games online this past season. Then we contact the player’s coach and go from there. Our biggest hurdle with recruiting players is just getting a visit. Once we get the visit and they see what we have in person? They come here 95% of the time. What I think most kids don’t realize is that a lot of ACHA programs are legit college hockey programs and the level of hockey is way better than they realize. If you look at the top teams in ACHA D1 they are sending players to the ECHL. We aren’t at that level yet but we strive to get there one day. We have kids that get offers to play pros overseas, and some SPHL invites. It’s far better hockey than you imagine.

MassNZ: Where else do you go to recruit players? Are there other leagues or locations that you scout heavily?

Hughes: We recruit from all over the world. There are certain cities now where players can get automatic scholarships of $10,000 a year minimum just from being from living there. Those cities include Dallas, Chicago, Philadelphia and others. Hopefully, we can get Boston onto that list one day. We recruit heavily out of the USPHL and EHL in addition to the MIAA and CIAC. We have a lot of players from Minnesota as well. We have six players with ties to Minnesota and then we have 14 players with New England hockey ties.

MassNZ: Let’s look ahead to next season: what are some of your areas of strength and what areas would you like to improve? 

Hughes: We only graduated a couple of players, so we return a lot. We have a solid top six forwards and solid top four D. We need to get more depth scoring as we had some issues this past season with almost no goals coming from our bottom six. College is different from high school where you need to be able to roll out four lines and six D that are consistently a threat to score and will keep the puck out of our net. We lost seven 1-goal games and had two ties so we need to find a way to finish games. I expect this upcoming season to be different as we will be older, deeper, and we believe we are bringing in the right players to have a solid year. We just need to make sure we gel as a team quickly and if we can do that I hope we find a way to be taking our team “back home” to Marlboro for Nationals in late March. It’s only April so we shall see. 

MassNZ: Anything else to add?

Hughes: The last thing I will say to the MIAA kids out there is to look into ACHA hockey. Make sure the school is what you want, not just chasing the NCAA D3 tagline. Make sure they have your major, fit your affordability, have a solid hockey program, solid academics, and a place that you can see yourself going to school. I was scared as an 18-year-old to go far from home so I settled with WNEC, but after I transferred to Louisville, I loved it. I highly suggest seeing what else is out there, there are good ACHA programs all over the country. This is legit college hockey.