Ryan Minkoff wasn’t sure what to expect when he joined the relatively anonymous Washington Huskies hockey team years back after playing for Minnesota’s standout Benilde-St. Margaret high-school program.
But competitive concerns aside, Minkoff, who became UW’s all-time scoring leader with 373 points from 2011 to 2015, wouldn’t trade memories gleaned from traveling up and down the West Coast in PAC-8 competition. The Huskies play Division 2 level in the American College Hockey Association (ACHA), considered a “club” league somewhat on-par with NCAA Division 3.
”I would say the positive of playing ACHA on the West Coast is the travel is so much more fun,” said Minkoff, now a player agent whose roster includes local product and Vegas Golden Knights farmhand Anthony Petruzzelli, women’s all-star Lexi Bender and former Everett Silvertips Luke Ormsby and Zach Hamill. “Going on road trips to play USC and UCLA and Utah, that’s great travel compared to taking bus rides from one Midwest town to another.”
The current UW squad takes its latest trip this weekend to defend its three consecutive titles at the 4th annual Apple Puck outdoor competition in the old-West-themed Okanogan County town of Winthrop. Four in-state ACHA teams — UW, Washington State, Gonzaga and Western Washington — square off in Saturday’s day-long event to raise money for the municipally owned, non-profit-managed Winthrop Rink.
”It’s a great setting,” current UW coach Matt Cleeton said. “We’re outside and they have great crowds come out. You kind of have a rivalry thing going as well. In Boston, they have their Beanpot thing. So, if this keeps going, this can start to become the same kind of thing out here.”
And at this level of hockey, where players pay to participate largely for their love of the game, rivalries mean plenty.
Unlike NCAA programs, ACHA teams are only nominally subsidized by their universities and players typically pay about $3,000 in annual registration fees to cover ice time and travel costs. The Huskies fly to two or three games annually, while taking bus rides and carpooling in rented minivans to the rest.
More than 300 schools play ACHA hockey in three men’s and two women’s divisions nationwide, offering a chance to play beyond high school for those who couldn’t make NCAA programs or don’t have one nearby. Some teams play in-conference schedules, while others are independent and play varying numbers of games depending on player availability — leading to a wide disparity in on-ice action and experience, even between just the four clubs in this weekend’s Winthrop event.
Still, where in-state rivalries go, the heavily seasoned Huskies are no shoo-in for a fourth straight Apple Puck crown.
They went 8-17-0-2 overall and missed the playoffs this season, while tournament favorite Western Washington was 12-10-0-1 and lost to Cal in the opening round of this month’s PAC-8 championships in Lake Tahoe. Washington State went 5-10-0-0 and Gonzaga 0-6-0-0.
“We only played WSU and Western four times each during the year, so this is something where the guys can try to build momentum heading into next season,” said Cleeton, whose team went 1-2-0-1 against each school. “A few of those games, we outplayed them but wound up losing in overtime, so we’ll see what happens this time.”
All games are at the outdoor rink for three 20-minute periods, with Cleeton’s team facing WSU in the 8 a.m. opener while Western and Gonzaga go at 10:45 a.m. The winners play in that night’s 7 p.m. final, while the runners-up have a 4 p.m. consolation game.
There will also be a free-skate and skills competition featuring youth and collegiate players between the morning and afternoon games.
Day-pass tickets cost $10 for adults and $5 for youths and seniors, while children under 5 get in free.
”We’ve had about 300 or 400 come out to watch the games in years past,” said Winthrop Rink manager Steve Bondi. “We definitely love to put this on as a community event, but we want to broaden it and draw people from outside the area.”
Indeed, those attendance figures are roughly equal to the entire town’s population, so the event certainly has homespun flavor. The local Sun Mountain Lodge resort, sponsoring the event, has thrown in a $300 cash prize for the winning team — no small deal considering one of last year’s participants, Eastern Washington, brought bedrolls and bunked on the indoor locker room floor rather than paying for lodging.
”This is also their only opportunity to play on outdoor ice, so that’s a big attraction,” Bondi said.
And the chance to build a following for college hockey in a state where that’s yet to really take hold. As with all levels of the sport, there’s hope this one will continue growing with next year’s arrival of a Seattle NHL expansion team.
Onetime UW star Minkoff, who went on to play professionally in Finland, said the ACHA competition level was a mixed bag. The Huskies hold tryouts each spring and — though they’ve never cut anyone — will limit players to a practice roster if skills aren’t high enough.
”Some of the teams we played, I thought they could beat Division 3 teams,” Minkoff said. “Some teams are very well run and some are weak and I would pile up the points against those.”
He remembers going 1-3 playing for a PAC-8 all-star team in a tournament against other ACHA conferences in Philadelphia. And while West Coast teams still mostly lag Eastern counterparts talent-wise, he figures improvement will continue as more players out here learn about ACHA hockey.
”The thing is, there are some good players at that level,” he said. “You’ll always have guys that fall through the cracks for whatever reason and this is a place for them to show what they’ve got.”
Some as quickly as this weekend on a small town outdoor rink.