20-on-20 brawls, thrown water bottles aimed at opposing mascots, trips to LA Kings games, and $1-beers. Perhaps, all those things make you think of one of San Diego State’s fraternities. Or maybe, a spring break trip for college students to remember for the rest of their lives.
However for early SDSU ice hockey players, these were normal, even necessary, actions in order to keep the club team going.
Next season, the program is set to make history by becoming the only Division I hockey program in California. The American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) granted them this status ahead of the 2022-23 season as a compliment to their commitment to growing hockey’s popularity at not only the university’s campus, but the San Diego area in general.
In the late 1990s, the SDSU Hockey program was a club of men who just wanted to continue playing hockey. Few competed in the upper echelon of midget hockey leagues, and none were scouted by a coach or staff member. In fact, the team struggled to even acquire a coach in the early days.
When current alumni Brian “Moose” Muslusky joined the team, found it to be a “hodgepodge group of players” that were just hoping to “pay the bills” and continue playing their favorite sport. At that time, the club was fully funded by the students, and the center’s goal was “paying the bills and getting through the season.”
His first season with the club, 1998, saw the team torch their opponents. The former Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA) was often a cake walk for the former Double- and Triple-A skaters—the team lit up opposing teams to the tune of 10-0 on some nights.
As Moose recalls, “That first year, I think we scored — I don’t remember the exact number — like 190 goals in about 16 league games… I think we scored 20 in one game.
“That’s what ended up leading us to the road of joining the ACHA.”
But, the top club league for collegiate hockey has grown since the 90’s as well. Moose said the team “wanted to play better competition… and we had another group of incoming freshmen that played Double-A or higher, so had we played in the PCHA, we would have destroyed everybody. It wouldn’t have been fun.”
That first ACHA season saw the Aztecs bring on a new coach in Greg Freidman and finish around a .500 record. After making a large jump in the quality of competition, the Aztecs were surprisingly competitive. But as Moose said, “that’s what ended up biting us in the ass the next year.”
The playoff format at the time for the ACHA was flawed. With no official website and rankings often solely based on record, teams could be rewarded for playing weaker opponents if it inflated their record. After exceeding expectations in their first season and a superb preseason showing against the University of Southern California in 1999, teams were hesitant to travel far South to face a challenging opponent to lessen the risk of hurting their record.
Now in their second ACHA season, the team had to travel far more than anticipated. The program, primarily funded by the student athletes, had to resort to more cost-friendly operations. As Moose put it, “We were essentially on our own, flipping bills.” They were largely responsible for supplying all the aspects needed to run a hockey team such as equipment, jerseys, payment for ice time, etc..
“We ended up dropping out of the ACHA at one point… we were on our own financially.” Because of that financial struggle, players ended up leaving the team and the quality of the club took a dip.
The struggle even saw the university suspend the club’s operations and put them at risk of fully losing their team. In order to stay financially secure, the team returned to the PCHA to lower travel costs, practiced late in evenings when ice-time was cheaper, and purchased only red jerseys.
Thankfully, the team was able to survive that hardship. When Jeff Shields took over as club president, the organization already had to pay a large outstanding debt to their local rink.
Shields got into hockey later in life, but his maturity and coaching background were exactly what the club needed at that time. He brought the club to a time of financial security, secured a coach, and added a sponsor.
Still in search of more funding, they needed to entice fans to drive decent distances to attend games. The Aztecs upped their advertising with posters around campus and offered $1-beers for those who made the 30-40 minute drive to home games.
Back in the PCHA, the Aztecs continued their dominance to finish the 1990s. In Shields’ two seasons, SDSU won a PCHA title, he took home a single-season scoring title, and the team built a sturdy foundation from which they could grow to where they are now.
When Shields was at SDSU, he always had a goal of re-joining the ACHA. “That was my push, when I was there, to develop a team enough to get into the ACHA.”
The following season, unfortunately without Shields, SDSU was finally stable enough to be reinstated to the second division of the ACHA. After more than two decades in the second division, the Aztecs will make their jump to the highest level of competition for 2022-23.
While these alumni were certainly the early pioneers that allowed the hockey program to grow into its current state, both Moose and Shields enjoyed their stints in college hockey for the fraternity and community they privileged to join.
Most of these players spent the better part of their college careers together. Moose fondly recalls rooming with his teammates, in addition to spending time over the summers and during travel to away games. As Shields put it: “It would’ve been a far less fun experience being at school had I not played hockey.”
In addition to on-ice successes, there are so many other great memories for these players. With college-aged players, large scrums between teams happened often. One such situation saw Moose get “into it with the Washington Huskies’ mascot.” Tensions flared and eventually the skater “drilled him in the head with a water bottle.”
While the program has moved on from simply trying to remain afloat, the bond of the players will never change. As Moose repeated “at the end of the day, through its ups and downs, it was like our own fraternity. We’re all still friends.”