Utah Utes Rugby finds itself in similar situation to what Utah Hockey overcame

Published: Friday, May 10 2013 10:45 a.m. MDT

A Utah hockey player celebrates following a goal.

Joseph Canfield

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Where Utah Rugby is now, the University of Utah hockey club once was.

Utes hockey was on fire in club hockey in 2003. Dominating Division II of the American Collegiate Hockey Association, the Utes were projected to move up a tier to the highest level of competition the following season. Off the ice, however, the Utes were far from outstanding.

Several infractions with the university landed the hockey program an indefinite suspension and banned everyone on the team from ever playing for the university again.

Sounds somewhat familiar, doesn't it?

Recently, the Utah Rugby club, also a club sport managed under Campus Recreation Services, was firmly suspended through 2013 for violating a previous suspension instituted by university officials. The statement issued by University of Utah Communications said the team will resume play in January of 2014 under strict probationary status.

In its own press release, the rugby program promised to actively work hard to repair the relationship between the team and the university and to reassess all components of the club. Both the club and the University of Utah say they have hope for a bright future in Rugby.

“The rugby program has a rich history with a passionate following and I'm confident it will emerge stronger after this unfortunate chapter,” Vice President for Student Affairs Barbara Snyder said in the official university statement.

Although the suspension issued to Utah Rugby is less harsh than the suspension issued years ago to the hockey team, which effectively was a complete disbandment, the situation regarding both suspensions are notably similar. Utah hockey, like rugby, had to deal with infractions regarding travel and intolerable player behavior.

The University of Utah's experience with the hockey club was so disastrous that when reorganization efforts began three years later, months of effort were required to persuade the university to even consider sponsoring club hockey again.

J.M. Lecointre, who became the club's first president after reinstatement, ultimately convinced University of Utah officials that the new team would be structured under a completely new vision, and he was given the go-ahead to make it a reality.

After the hockey team was finally allowed back on the ice, the Skatin' Utes quickly realized their competitive advantage was gone. Utah lost virtually every game in its return season, eking out a single victory. The program has faced an uphill challenge every year since in the ACHA West.

Current Utah Hockey Club President A.J. Boldan joined the team in 2007, the season following reinstatement, and became president in 2008. Boldan saw ugly days, flashes of brilliance throughout rebuilding years and, more recently, success — success which is the result of a deliberate, comprehensive strategy to restore the reputation of the club and develop a competitive team.

In order to carry out this plan, the Utes sought out players who could dominate on the ice, but the Skatin' Utes needed to succeed in the classroom as well. By 2012-13, the average GPA of Utah's hockey team was 3.1 with nine players on the dean's list.

The Utes also wanted to develop a strong pool of talent, which was virtually non-existent immediately following reinstatement. Now more than 60 players try out for Utah Hockey on an annual basis, an unimaginable reality just a few years ago.

The large talent pool has given Utah Hockey the luxury of being selective with its players, and Boldan said player selection operates at a high level.

“One thing that I've always appreciated from our coaching staff is the mentality that we're not looking for the best players, we're looking for the right players.“Everybody would bleed and die for each other on that team,” Boldan said.

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