Go ahead and take a look at the Eastern Illinois University athletics website. No matter how long you search, you’ll find nary a word about an EIU hockey team.
The fact of the matter is men’s hockey isn’t offered as a varsity men’s sport at EIU or a majority of other universities across the country. You may be surprised to learn, however, that a group of dedicated young men make up an Eastern hockey club that does in fact exist – and has for most of the last four decades.
Truthfully, “dedicated” may not even be a strong enough word to describe the 20 players and two coaches making up the current EIU Hockey roster. From September to February, these student-athletes are working out four nights a week and traveling to play every weekend as part of the American Collegiate Hockey Association.
As a club team, there are no scholarships and very few other perks for these guys. They’re simply doing it because they have a genuine passion for the sport.
“We practice on-ice twice a week as well as off-ice here at Eastern twice a week,” said Michael Sorrentino, a team captain and the current president of the RSO. “We’re usually on the ice Monday and Wednesday, and we usually condition here Tuesday and Thursday. Fridays and Saturdays are travel and game days.”
As club president, Sorrentino handles the club’s day-to-day operations, scheduling games, hiring referees and securing ice time at David S. Palmer Arena in Danville, the team’s home rink.
“I’ve been on the team four years; this is my senior year and last year playing,” said Sorrentino, a kinesiology major. “Right now, I just play for the fun of the game. I know everybody on the team loves to play hockey and loves the competition. The team we have now is very competitive, very fun.
"Everybody likes being together, being competitive, just feeding off one another and playing the game everyone has played since they were young.”
As mentioned, the players go to great lengths to practice and play. Not only are their Monday and Wednesday on-ice practices in Danville, but their scheduled ice time begins at 9 p.m. in order to accommodate all involved schedules. They don’t seem to see that as a problem, though.
“We’re all great friends, on and off the ice,” said Conner Cox, a senior assistant captain and club vice president. “There are no groups of friends that hang out with certain people or other people; everyone is welcome to everyone hanging out with everyone outside the ice. It’s a really tight-knit group, and it makes going to battle every weekend a lot easier when you know you’re good friends out there.”
EIU competes at the Men’s Division II level of the ACHA, playing in the Central Division with club teams from 40 other Midwestern schools. Currently, the Panthers are in the middle of the divisional pack, albeit toward the front of that pack. Injuries have definitely derailed chances to improve upon the team’s 8-9-1 record as of the date of this writing.
“We’ve played the top teams in this country to really close, tight games,” said Bill Heisse, the team’s assistant coach. “Some we’ve beaten, which is kind of a good deal.
“The best thing I can say about those boys in the locker room is that every game, the other team has talked about how we don’t give up. We play hard to the end. We’re never out of it.”
Heisse’s head coach is Brad Piercy, whose day job is as a physical therapist in St. Louis. Every Wednesday, the pair treks to Danville for practice – the Monday practices along with Tuesday/Thursday workouts are captain-supervised. In addition, they travel to the games. In other words, it’s not just the players who are dedicated to the team.
“I would say the most I get out of this is that I enjoy it,” said Piercy. “I played the game for over 21 years at club, juniors, amateur and semi-pro levels. I love teaching the game, and this a great bunch of guys that loves to have fun.
“I obviously also love to see them win. Unfortunately a lot of things have happened this year with injuries that have left us short. It’s fun to see these guys pull through, especially against the tougher teams we’ve played that nobody expects us to beat.”
Cox enumerated some of the team’s most notable triumphs this season.
“We’ve had a lot of success beating teams we haven’t beaten since I’ve been here,” said the communication studies major. “We beat the University of Illinois this year, which is a huge win. We took three of four points from them; in years past, Eastern Illinois wasn’t going to be able to do that.
“We gave Northern Illinois their first home loss in regulation in I think over a full season. So we’re really proud of ourselves for taking steps in the right direction and we’re hoping the program can keep advancing.”
Then there’s the fun tradition of the Bohmer helmet, one the club has been carrying out since well before the turn of the century. At the end of every practice, each team member gets as many chances as it takes to score a shootout-style goal against the team’s goalkeeper.
“The last person to score is called the Bohmer for the week,” explained Sorrentino. “And he must wear this old Jofa helmet to class for a whole class period and take a picture with his professor at the end for proof that he actually did wear it to class.
“It’s kind of funny, and it’s been going on for a while. It actually originated from a guy whose last name was Bohmer; he owned the helmet and it has these ridiculous stickers on it. A lot of people just look at you like you’re some kind of alien or something.”
The tradition is one unique and interesting enough to merit a feature story on the ACHA website.
Eastern’s season is drawing to a close, but current and future players would love to have more students find ways show their support.
“Local businesses usually sponsor a fan bus once or twice a season,” said Cox. “They’re usually in charge of spreading the word and hosting it. We, as an RSO, are not able to take responsibility for such events.”
In addition, most games are streamed live online via the team’s Ustream account; Jack Sheehan, a journalism student at EIU, takes care of streaming the games and also provided some of the footage used in the video on this page.
Also, make sure you check out the EIU Hockey Club website for more information about the organization, including a full schedule, results and roster. There is also contact information, just in case you're interested in playing.