Hockey players from far and wide put tiny Neumann University on the map

Harley Garrioch, above, grew up on a Cree Nation reserve 500 miles north of Winnipeg. Right, Jordan Zalba, from British Columbia, moves the puck up ice during a practice at Ice Words in Aston. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Harley Garrioch, above, grew up on a Cree Nation reserve 500 miles north of Winnipeg. Right, Jordan Zalba, from British Columbia, moves the puck up ice during a practice at Ice Words in Aston. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Posted: February 04, 2013

They've come from typical hockey upbringings, growing up in Red Deer, Alberta, and Redfew, Ontario, and Cross Lake, Manitoba.

A mix of Americans and Canadians, and one freshman Finnish defenseman, headquartered at a rink just off Route 452 in Aston, home of Neumann University, which has established itself in recent years as a hockey school.

"The program, I think, has been going for 12 years," said Neumann coach Dominick Dawes, in his fifth year. "The first few years were pretty bleak. Then the school made an investment in coaching and recruiting. From '04-'05, it started to grow."

In 2009, Neumann won a Division III national title. This season, there was an early win over Norwich, the top-ranked D-III school. Just for comparison's sake, Penn State is in its first year as a Division I program, but lost an overtime home game to Neumann. These boys can skate a little bit.

"Our typical guy comes in at 20-21 years old, is a bubble Division I player," Dawes said. "There are only so many scholarships to go around."

All of them played junior hockey in some form.

"We tend to look for a certain type of kid - we're a very blue-collar program; that's what made us successful," Dawes said. "We want to find guys who buy into that."

"Guys are older, they're stronger, they're men," senior Jordan Zalba said of college hockey. "Every game is a playoff game because of how the NCAA kind of schedules. It's pretty intense."

As far as style of play between junior hockey and the college game, most players seemed to agree, no matter their junior league, that "I think college is way faster, for sure," said Jake Kratz, a senior from Harleysville.

Less clutching and grabbing, said team captain Sean Crozier, from Renfrew, Ontario.

"College is kind of run and gun, just go, go, go," Crozier said.

Dawes will get around to junior tournaments and has built a continentwide recruiting network. Zalba, a senior forward from Victoria, British Columbia, was playing junior hockey in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, when Dawes called him.

"I didn't really know of Neumann at the time," Zalba said. "I looked into it."

He didn't have other front-burner options, Zalba said, so he committed to coming east. He's been good for 28 goals and 45 assists in his four years at Neumann.

Kratz is a Hill School graduate who came to Neumann from the Green Mountain Glades of the Eastern Junior Hockey League.

"I think I contacted them," Kratz said. "I just knew it was a local school, they had a good team. I e-mailed Coach Dawes."

Harley Garrioch came from the farthest north.

"Cross Lake, Manitoba, is about 500 miles north of Winnipeg" without much in between, Garrioch said.

"The next town is probably 60 miles," said Garrioch, who grew up on an American Indian reserve. "The thing to do as a kid - the lake's always frozen in the winter. You get home at 3, get on the ice at 3:30."

The education wasn't the greatest on the Cree Nation reserve, Garrioch said, so his father sent him to Flin Flon to live with friends when he was 13 years old. Flin Flon, of course, is best known as the hometown of Bobby Clarke. After moving on to a private school, Garrioch eventually played for the Flin Flon Bombers in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.

Garrioch really isn't thinking about following Clarke's path to the NHL. He wants to help the Cree Nation back home.

"I want to get into management, get my CPA in Canada, move back, and help my people," he said. "The resources weren't there when I was younger."

Right now, it's hockey season, probably the last one for these seniors, most of whom have been playing full-time for over a decade. This weekend, Neumann had a home-and-home with 13th-ranked Manhattanville College, which played its home game in Stamford, Conn. Friday's game was there, then Saturday night in Aston.

"We travel a lot - our closest opponent is three hours away," Dawes said. "We are by far the southernmost Division III program."

They're currently ranked 11th by D3hockey.com. Not bad for a little program that has put Aston on the hockey map.


Contact Mike Jensen at mjensen@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @jensenoffcampus.

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