San Francisco is just coming up hockey these days, with two new teams in two seasons. Last season, the ECHL came to town, and now San Francisco State has a Division 3 club too. On top of that, both teams won their home openers last Friday at the Cow Palace. For the SFSU Gators, it was also their first win of the season. That is some nice symmetry.
The relationship between the Bulls and the Gators started with a simple problem: where could a college club skate in San Francisco? Gators President Dennis Groenlund explains:
[Gators treasurer] Andrew Duenes helped me build this up. We sat down one day, we were trying to think of what ice rinks we could use. I didn’t know what the Cow Palace was at that point.
They approached the Bulls and came to an agreement that would give the Gators a venue that dwarfs most of the rinks the team competes in. Additionally, anyone who buys a ticket to a Gators home game also gets a ticket to a Bulls home game on the same day, which they often will be.
Groenlund was born in Sweden, and came to the U.S. for college. He started in San Diego for Junior College, before transferring to San Francisco State. SFSU almost had an ice hockey team sooner, but the first try didn’t work out:
There’s a point system that we have to be in good standing with. We go and do community service, and you show up for meetings, and you bring in the right paperwork, and you show that you’re being active as a club and that the members of the club are being active as well.
Groenlund was undaunted by these bureaucratic hurdles. While in Southern California, he skated and played regularly, and when he came to the Bay Area, his plan was to continue doing so. “There was no hockey team, and I always wanted to play college hockey so might as well get it going.” He had always played hockey:
“I’ve been playing hockey all my life, since I was 2 years old, I started skating I think. My Dad played hockey in Sweden, my brother plays hockey,” laughing, “there’s no way around it when you live in Sweden.”
The Gators’ President explained that only a few SFSU players started the season with much ice hockey experience:
We have one other Swede [who] has been playing for quite a while, we have Michael Parra who has been playing, he’s probably one of our best players. There are a couple. There’s a handful, there’s one line that absolutely has some hockey sense. Then the others have skated, but some switched from roller hockey to ice hockey, they [hadn't] really played with full contact.
San Francisco is part of the Pacific Collegiate Hockey Association. Santa Rosa Junior College joined the league last season, but had been playing as an independent club for many seasons. The Gators did not have any such history to draw from, and the novelty of the situation is not lost on the players. Gators center Andrew Bensch, shortly after the team’s first win, commented on the experience so far:
It’s simply been awesome to be a part of a grass roots program, before we came together as this club, there was no hockey at SFSU, so we’re all pioneers. That’s pretty darn cool.
When there is no ice at the Cow Palace, the Gators skate in Redwood City. Their coach makes the late night trips with them south:
We have a regular coach, a really cool guy, is basically doing it for free. We just pay him gas money and get him a neon yellow track suit.
He’s doing a great job. Our practices are Sunday nights at 10:45 in Redwood city. It’s a commitment to come out there, and I was skeptical at first to find a coach.
After their first game (a thundering defeat by all accounts), Groenlund was still optimistic that the venture would be fun. Was he looking forward to playing any particular team at that point?
All of them, any of them. Yes, it’s going to be fun, absolutely. It doesn’t matter what team we’re playing, or win or lose, winning is always fun but it’s just… hockey is, the fact that you can go out be with your team and just play hockey is one of the best feelings.
The Gators have a coach, players, and a home rink. Now they even have a win.
For more about the team’s inception, watch this video.
The Gators will host U.C. Davis at 2:00pm before the Bulls game this Friday, and Stanford on Sunday at 7:00pm. For tickets or to see the team’s roster and schedule, visit their website.