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After 25 years, ĪCoach G' still proud

KEVIN B. KLAUS/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Arizona Icecats head coach Leo Golembiewski built his team from scratch 25 years ago into one of the nation's most accomplished hockey programs.
By James Kelley
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, February 19, 2004
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Icecats focus on rich tradition, not first-missed postseason

In 1979, creating a hockey team at a university in the middle of the desert seemed like a crazy idea. Twenty-five years later, the thought of not having the UA Icecats would seem just as crazy.

In their 25 years of existence, the Icecats have won 80 percent of their games and gone to eight final fours. They are the only club hockey team ever to beat a ranked NCAA Division I team. Their success has been matched only by their support, as the UA has become perhaps the most popular club team in the entire country, while never missing the national tournament.

At least, not until this week. On Tuesday, the American Collegiate Hockey Association released the ranking which determines what teams received a tourney berth. The Icecats came in at No. 14 ÷ one spot away from the postseason.

But head coach Leo Golembiewski says the team's first-missed postseason doesn't affect how he feels about the program.

"We're not just a collegiate club hockey team. What we do in our venue, with the Tucson Convention Center, the accomplishments on the ice year-in and year-out · We're not just an ordinary sports club," Golembiewski said.

"Maybe the only bittersweet thing about the 25th anniversary is that for the first time ever, we're not going to nationals," he said.

If Golembiewski seems to take his team's setback in stride, it's probably because he's seen tough times before. The Scotty Bowman disciple ÷ Golembiewski called the former Detroit Red Wings coach his "absolute mentor" ÷ has been with the Icecats since the beginning.

The idea behind the Icecats was born in the 1970s, when Golembiewski coached a high school team in La Grange, Ill. At the time, he said Canadian players dominated the NCAA ranks. After "falling in love with Arizona" and earning his master's in education from the UA, inspiration struck. He decided to combine his love of hockey with his love of Arizona, and give American players an opportunity to play in the process. The Icecats were born.

"I had this dream of coming out and building a team with American-born hockey players," he said. "Nothing against Canadians, nothing against anybody ÷ as it turns out, we've had some Canadians play, and Eastern Europeans play. The bottom line was to come out to Arizona and start a team with American kids."

With high hopes for his team, Golembiewski set a similarly steep learning curve. In the Icecats' first year, they faced both Cal State Fullerton, the defending Southern California Collegiate champions, and BYU, the defending Rocky Mountain champions, in the Salt Palace, a professional rink. Arizona beat them both, finishing its inaugural season at 5-3 despite having to play its home games at Oceanside Arena in Tempe.

Arizona quickly came to dominate each of the conferences it occupied in the early and mid-1980s. Later in the decade, the Icecats went independent in order to play what Golembiewski called the "best schedule possible."

"It was just this dream of putting together a team with American players and I guess it's been realized, because 25 years later, prior to this year we had won 80 percent of our games," Golembiewski said.

And the Icecats' success only begins with winning. They're perhaps best known among their competition for having a rabid fan base.

Associate coach Brian Meehan said Arizona stands out from its opponents.

"In our league, there are maybe five or six teams that you look to as example programs," said Meehan, a former UA player. "We're one of them."

Much of the team's success can be attributed to the arena it's played in for the last 23 years ÷ the Tucson Convention Center Arena, or "The Madhouse on Main."

"Nobody in our league plays in near the type of arena that we do," Meehan said.

Golembiewski said that the fan support is a big reason why he likes Tucson. He said that he and his wife of 26 years, Paula, have had six or seven chances to leave Tucson, but always decided to stay.

"We love the town. We're big Tucson fans, big University of Arizona fans ÷ We're proud of our school," Golembiewski said. "Though sometimes I wish they would give my players a little more respect."

If next year's Icecats turn out to be as good as Golembiewski anticipates, people might not have a choice but to respect his players.

"We're going to come back next year with a vengeance. Not only are we going to improve the roster a little bit, but the guys are driven," Golembiewski said. "That's what's so cool about this team; to have that kind of upbeat, positive attitude. It's been an interesting season. It just shows you where we come from ÷ other teams would be yelling and screaming at one another."

While Golembiewski looks ahead to contending for another championship to match his team's 1985 national title, at least one hockey great thinks the Icecats have already had miraculous success in their 25 years. And that man, Herb Brooks, knows a thing or two about miracles ÷ he coached the 1980 Olympic team to the most famous hockey win in history, "The Miracle on Ice."

"When Herb Brooks visited me 10 years ago, he said what I did out here was pretty much a miracle," Golembiewski said.

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