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The Ice Age at Ohio University

Ronnie Hill, Pete Warden and Dick Hendrie

Even before 1804 and the founding of Ohio University, during winter the Hocking River froze and became ice. But it wasn’t until the University’s 154th year that ice formed along the Hocking in a very special, different and artificial way. In 1958, for the first time ever, the floor of the field house along side the Hocking River was made into ice. That was the beginning of the Ice Age at Ohio University. From then on, the field house on the river became known as Bird Arena, home of the Ohio University Ice Hockey Team and host to all sorts of ice sport activities.

The Bird field house truly became a special place when it became the home of the Ohio University Hockey Team. In 1956 University President John Baker approved a request from the Athletic Department to build a field house for indoor football, baseball and track. However after the building was designed and built it turned out to be not well suited for its intended purposes. Fortunately, the University President’s wife liked ice sports. She also enjoyed ice skating and encouraged her husband to allocate $10,000 from student funds to add an ice surface into the field house and make better use of the facility. The funds were allocated and the wonders of an artificial ice rink came to Ohio University. The first on campus ice arena in Ohio. 

For the last 50+ years, ice skating classes, hockey practices, open skating sessions, figure skating clubs, intramural hockey, local youth hockey as well as the University team’s games have filled the calendar of the once little used field house. Almost from the day the ice was first made, the facility has been heavily in demand. Today, the facility is in use almost “24 X 7”. Bird Arena indeed has become an active place since a sheet of artificial ice was added to the facility.

Sticks, Pucks And A Place To Play

Bird Arena in it’s early years.

Most importantly, with ice in the Bird, Ohio University got a home for a Hockey Team. All over the world, people play hockey on frozen ponds in winter. So it was on the ponds around the Ohio University campus in the mid 1950’s. But pond hockey in Athens took on a new meaning when John McComb arrived in 1957. John came to Ohio University to teach Physical Education. He loved hockey and played at Boston University. When John got word that an ice surface would be added to the field house, naturally he dreamed of organizing and coaching the hockey team. One Sunday morning on a frozen pond at the old Asylum grounds John gathered the boys playing there and told them about his vision of Hockey at Ohio University. His enthusiasm for hockey was contagious. And, when John offered to teach the boys hockey and coach the team, the puck dropped on the beginning of the game of hockey in Athens. As Elmer Gates, one of the team’s original members put it, “That’s when all of the student pond players began to realize how little we knew about playing college hockey”.

That was a defining moment in Ohio Hockey history. Until then there was little college hockey in Ohio. Only one other university in Ohio had an indoor ice rink. So with ice coming to the Bird, the Bobcat team had a chance to distinguish itself in a sport that was growing rapidly across colleges in the US. The team wasted no time getting going. The Ohio team won its very first game in December 1958 by a score of 22 to 1 over Ohio Northern University. The Hockey Bobcats record was 6 Wins, 2 Losses and 1 Tie in their first year of competition. In their second year they won the Ohio Intercollegiate Hockey Association Championship. Then they repeated as champions for the next two years. Hockey was off to a wonderful start at Ohio University.

Since 1958, Ohio’s Hockey Team has represented the university in over 1,000 intercollegiate games. Incredibly, the team has won over 65% of their games and has brought countless league championships and 4 national hockey championships to Ohio University. Over 1,000 hockey players have suited up and played in the Bobcat uniform over the years. Standing room only attendance at home games has been commonplace during most of the years of play. Almost one million students, parents, visitors, faculty and staff members and Athens residents have attended Ohio University Hockey games in Bird Arena. Few other colleges or universities can boast of such a long and successful ice hockey history and campus-wide cherished tradition.

Coaches Behind The Success Of Ohio University Hockey

John McComb served as head hockey coach from 1958 through 1976.

Coaching has played a key role in making Hockey so successful at Ohio University. Many coaches stand out as real difference makers in Ohio hockey history. Craig McCarthy led the team during the 90’s into the new millennium. Craig has over 200 wins to his credit. His skill and effort in recruiting, developing, disciplining and coaching were the key to Ohio winning their first National Hockey Championship.

In the 70’s when Hockey lost it’s varsity status due to budget constraints Ohio University Hockey languished and was about to fade away. It was then that former player Mike L’heureux returned to coach the team back into the limelight. Beginning in 1981, he compiled an admirable record of 55 Wins, 17 Losses and 2 Ties. Another former player and faculty member Tiff Cook returned to Bird Arena as coach in the late 1980’s. During the four years he coached Tiff won an incredible 83% of the games and re-established the reputation of the hockey team at Ohio University.

No one was as important to Ohio University Hockey as coach John McComb. From those winter weekends on the frozen ponds around Athens in 1957 when John started teaching students hockey fundamentals, his influence on Ohio University Hockey has been everpresent. He coached and managed the team for 18 years and won 176 games. In every one of those years he pushed for increased funding to keep the team progressing; he nurtured the team to the Varsity level; and he helped establish the CCHA- Central Collegiate Hockey Association, the Division I College Hockey league in the Midwest US. John loved hockey and made hockey a positive experience for every player, fan, team supporter, faculty member or staff person involved with Ohio University Hockey.

A Club Sport For More Than The Athletes

2003-2004 ACHA Division I National Champions

Typically if a coach starts with great players and ample budget his team is likely to be successful. Well an ample budget have never been part of the hockey equation at Ohio University. After all, for most of its 40+ years of existence, the Hockey Team has been a club sport. Top hockey recruits rarely attend schools with less than a Division I Varsity Program, and the Ohio University budget for club sports has always been spread way thinner than a successful hockey team needs to buy equipment and pay for team travel expenses.

Involvement of various campus groups has always been a key factor in the success of the Ohio University Hockey teams. In the early days of the team’s existence, it was the Sands AC student social club that was an integral part of hockey at Ohio University. Today the team’s Blue Line Booster Club and Ice Hockey Staff are as much a part of Ohio hockey as the players themselves. These groups promote the team, conduct fund raising events, organize social events and encourage good hockey players to attend Ohio University. All of these activities and more are conducted to increase the fun of hockey, broaden the participation in hockey, develop lasting relationships between people interested in hockey and promote hockey spirit at Ohio University.

Continuous support and social interaction from groups like the Sands AC, the Blue Line Booster Club and others over the years has significantly contributed to the Hockey Club’s success. The hockey players on Ohio’s Team have for the most part been able to focus their efforts toward succeeding on the ice while the support groups enjoyed doing all the rest necessary for hockey success. For example, in the early 1960’s when hockey players were faced with dropping out of school because they had difficulty finding quality housing at affordable prices, the Sands AC arranged for a local tavern owner to acquire the former University President’s residence and provide low rent housing for hockey players. Also when the early teams needed funding for equipment and travel, the Sands AC developed the first Game Program and sold it along with the refreshments at home games to raise the money necessary to keep the team’s schedule progressing.

From those early days when the Sands AC arranged parties, sold 10 cent Programs and 25 cent beers at the games, much more formal hockey support programs have evolved. Today, the Blue Line Booster Club conducts all sorts of innovative fund raising programs, communicates with Hockey fans via a Web site and performs numerous support activities for the team. At the same time, the Teams General Manager and Ice Hockey Staff provide a professional level of organization and management for the team. These efforts over the years have involved thousands of people in addition to the athletes with the challenge, fun and camaraderie of the highly successful Ohio University Hockey program.

Over the years the Ohio University Hockey Club has become one of the most cherished experiences a student, parent, fan, faculty member, staff or booster could have. In the words of the Team’s first MVP, Bill “The Sheik” Gurnick (Goalie from ’59 to ’65), “My life was changed for the better because of my hockey experience at Ohio University. My academic performance, social life and personal development all improved as a member of the hockey team.”

Thank you again Mrs. Baker for making possible the Ice Age at Ohio University.

Written by

Tom Gosiorowski

Ohio University

Class of 1965

Hockey Team Center 1961-65