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Arizona Daily Star (Tucson)
Chad Berman didn't need to remind his players to bring their skates and sticks to practice this week.
That wouldn't be necessary. There would be no pucks, either. And no ice at all.
Instead, the Arizona Wildcats' club hockey coach — and his team — spent the week on the artificial grass field that borders the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility.
"We're a qualified soccer team," Berman joked, as he watched his players kick around soccer balls at the end of Tuesday's practice.
There is one usable ice surface in Tucson — inside Tucson Arena.
But "Disney on Ice" and a pro bullriding event are scheduled for the next two weeks, and the American Hockey League's Tucson Roadrunners are a week into their season. The Wildcats are, frankly, out of luck. They'll hold just one on-ice practice in their next nine games.
The Roadrunners often travel to Phoenix to train; the Wildcats don't have that luxury.
"They've got a different budget," Berman said. "It's just a different challenge for us. We have our positives here, too."
Their hot start is one of them.
Arizona opened the season with a win over Grand Canyon before knocking off Arizona State both at home and on the road.
The Wildcats have risen to No. 16 in the American Collegiate Hockey Association poll. They'll travel to AZ ICE in Gilbert starting Thursday for three "home" games against Missouri State and Arkansas. The puck drops at 7 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, and at 1:15 p.m. Sunday.
Berman says the Wildcats' style is tough for opponents to prepare for.
"We play at a fast pace, and I think that's tough for teams to get used to with or without the puck," Berman said. "Our hockey sense has drastically improved, and I just think the buy-in of our group is different."
Eleven skaters have already scored for the Wildcats this season, and the team isn't even at full-strength health wise.
The balanced approach is a change from last season, when then-senior Brian "Toppie" Hogan produced a bulk of the team's offensive output. Orion Olsen, a forward in his third year with the team, has been impressed with the collective aggressiveness of the team.
"Everybody is giving it their all, and the team is jelling together," Olsen said. "The lines are playing well."
Now comes the tricky part: The Wildcats must maintain their momentum without the benefit of ice time. Players intend to stay active, even if it means just kicking around soccer balls. The physical activity may not affect their hockey directly, but it aids in both injury prevention and team-building.
"We're just trying to get some cross-training in," Olsen said. "We do all sorts of kinds of stuff."
All three of Arizona's games this weekend qualify as league games. A positive weekend could put the Wildcats in the early driver's seat.
For now, Berman is pleased with how his team is making it work.
"We haven't played close to our best game, and we're winning," Berman said. "If you can learn lessons and win that's a good thing."
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