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IPFW hockey overcoming obstacles in struggle for recognition

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For more on the Komets, follow Blake Sebring on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blakesebring and at his blog www.tailingthekomets.com.

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From about age 12 on, playing sports is about weeding out those who don't have the talent, desire, opportunity or money to keep competing. Winners keep playing and losers usually look for something else to do.

Many people keep trying to get the members of the IPFW club hockey team to move on, but they are too stubborn. They refuse to give up no matter how difficult the obstacles chucked in front of them.

And there are many.

Because the hockey club is not sanctioned by the university, players run the organization themselves, even hiring the coach, this year former Komet Ron Leef. The players are responsible for raising a $55,000 budget, organizing practice time, purchasing their own equipment, setting up road trips and renting buses or driving cars to get to the games.

For their home games at Lutheran Health SportsCenter, they are in charge of selling tickets, running the scoreboard, providing scorekeepers and a public address announcer, and even developing and handing out the lineup programs. They also program the music.

Most of the 23 players work, go to school full time and then play hockey. They also have a ton of misconceptions to deal with.

Most people think club sports means people getting together to play a game among themselves, but the hockey team plays all over the Midwest against teams from big-name schools such as Notre Dame, Purdue and Indiana.

There have been times when team members have been accused of being scam artists when looking for sponsorship possibilities. Business owners thought they were frauds because the hockey team wasn't on the university's athletic website. They have their own at www.ipfwhockey.com.

Another false assumption is that because they aren't Division I, they must not be any good. Actually, they competed in the national tournament last year and are usually ranked. Even this year, playing with one goaltender, the squad is around .500 after Todd Mancuso was declared ineligible for serving as an emergency backup goaltender with the Komets.

Because of gender equity and the costs of fielding hockey programs, there are only 59 sanctioned Division I teams and 80 in divisions II and III, but there are more than 150 club teams.

"It's frustrating because I'm looked at as if our club is Frisbee golf,'' said senior Chris Treft. "I train just as hard or harder than some sports, but my sport doesn't have the money. It's frustrating to talk to other athletes on campus. They are the 300th-best team in the country, but we were ranked as the 16th-ranked club team last year, meaning we're inside the top 200.''

Treft has tried for years to gain the team official campus recognition. They received $20,000 from student government last year, but that upset some on campus. About the only thing they receive from the school is the use of the name on the front of the jersey.

"It's always there in the back of your mind that maybe someday we can be sanctioned, but you get the same answer year after year,'' junior Tyler Mason said. "You move on.''

Other times, athletic department officials have seen the hockey program as a threat, taking away potential fundraising or even fans from the school's "real'' sports.

All this adversity has pulled team members together. They don't expect anything they don't earn, on the ice or off. It's very difficult to distract these players from the game they love.

"I always say that these are college students who play hockey and everywhere else they are hockey players who go to college,'' Leef said. "They are actual students who love hockey and keep having to find a way to make it work. It's grass-roots, but it's fun.''

The camaraderie they have built is remarkable. The only way the program works is if every player sacrifices and pulls together.

"The joke is if we ever get to play pro hockey, we'd just get to show up for games and play, and how boring would that be?'' Treft said with a laugh. "That would be weird for us. It would be like we're pampered because we're used to doing everything for ourselves.''

The things they have learned will serve throughout their lives, but they aren't ready to be weeded out yet.

"You look at all these guys where they have played and what they have been through, and they've always been the underdogs,'' Leef said. "We just have to battle all the time, and that's just the way this team is.''