By Jared Bravard, @JaredBravard
Cyclone Hockey is no stranger to having multiple teams in its program. An option outside the Division I team has always been available. However, for the 2020-21 season, Cyclone Hockey had teams at all three divisions in the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA).
“It was certainly a challenge,” Head Coach Jason Fairman said. “It would rank up there as one of the most challenging years for myself.”
Leading up to the season, the program planned to have three coaches, one for each team. By the time the season started, the program only had two coaches — Fairman and Assistant Coach Shaun Gibbons. A third coach could not be hired to fill the empty spot due to a university-wide hiring freeze. Fairman does not blame the university at all for the situation.
“With COVID, [the hiring freeze] was something that made a lot of sense,” Fairman said. “It was just a situation that we had to deal with, and we made it work.”
Since the original plan was to have three teams, Fairman and Gibbons did not want to turn away any players after promising them ice time.
“We’ve been fortunate that we have a lot of student-athletes that want to come to our program,” Fairman said. “With only two teams, there would’ve been a lot of very good hockey players that wouldn’t have been able to play hockey this past year.”
Throughout the season, Fairman and Gibbons split time and responsibilities between all three teams. During the fall, the Division III team played one exhibition game but did not start its regular season until January due to difficulty scheduling and fewer teams playing.
When scheduling games, Fairman did his best to have doubleheaders at home and to avoid having all three teams in a different city — which happened only once.
“I spent most of my time trying to find games for the three teams and that’s a task I never want to have to do again in my lifetime hopefully,” Fairman said.
The first weekend of games in October saw the Division I and Division II teams play a doubleheader at home. Division I was the sole team playing the second weekend before both teams were in different cities the final two weekends of the month.
By January, all three teams played regular season games. Only three weekends in the spring semester — excluding Division I’s conference tournament — saw only one team playing. The rest of the weekends consisted of two teams in two locations, three teams in two locations or home-and-home series with two teams away the first night and home for a doubleheader the second night.
One weekend, Gibbons was with both Division II and Division III as the two teams played away at Marian University while Fairman was with Division I in Ames, Iowa. The only instance of all three teams being in three separate cities occurred Feb. 19-21. Fairman was in Missouri as the Division I team faced Lindenwood on Feb. 20-21. Gibbons was also in Missouri but with the Division III team as it played Missouri State on Feb. 19-20. Division II played in Ames, Iowa, on Feb. 19-20 against Maryville. Austin Willenborg was called in to help coach Division II for the series.
Fairman liked what he saw from Willenborg that weekend and from the couple of other times he stepped in to help during the season.
“He was able to step in and do a great job for us,” Fairman said. “[…] He’s already shown some great promise and we couldn’t be more excited to have him on board. He seems to fit in well with the coaching staff from a personality standpoint, and I think he’s going to be a huge benefit for the program.”
On March 19, the Division I team played on the road against Midland. Fairman went to Fremont, Nebraska, with Division I for its game while Gibbons went with the Division III team as it played in Sioux Center, Iowa, against Dordt. The two teams headed back to Iowa for games the following day.
Gibbons and the Division III Cyclones arrived in Ames at 2:00 a.m. on March 20. The Division II bus left at 6:00 a.m. as the team was set to travel to Missouri for a series against Lindenwood. In an effort to help Gibbons with this schedule, a Division III player — and certified driver — drove one of the team vans back to Ames. This allowed Gibbons to sleep a little extra before traveling with Division II early that morning.
It was not the only time Gibbons saw a player step in to help. Senior captain of the Division II team, Blake Ramsey, offered Gibbons help throughout the season. The veterans contributed to the success of each team, according to Gibbons.
“I credit a lot of it to our older guys,” Gibbons said. “They knew the situation we were in.”
Gibbons also recalls a six-week stretch of the season where he did not stay at his own place on the weekends due to being on the road.
“I know it’s part of the job,” Gibbons said. “I’m not complaining at all. It was just a long year.”
The final feat Fairman, Gibbons and Willenborg pulled off occurred in March during the national tournaments. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the national tournaments for each division were in different cities this year instead of the usual one city format. The ACHA Division I National Tournament took place in Chesterfield, Missouri, while the ACHA Division II National Tournament was in Bismarck and Mandan, North Dakota — an over 14-hour, 960-mile journey from Chesterfield.
Fairman and Gibbons traveled with the Division II team to North Dakota for the pool play games. Fairman coached the first two games on April 15-16 before getting in the car with Joe Thien, Cyclone Hockey’s director of gameday operations, to get to Division I’s first tournament game on April 17. Gibbons coached the third and final pool play game for Division II.
The Division I team won its first game and advanced to the quarterfinals. The puck for that game dropped at 8:00 p.m. on April 18, and the game ended at 10:18 p.m. After the quarterfinal loss, Fairman and Thien got back in the car and drove overnight to North Dakota to be with the Division II team for the semifinal game at 2:30 p.m. on April 19.
The two switched driving duties, but Thien drove the majority of the way to allow Fairman time to rest.
“It certainly gave me a story to tell,” Fairman said. “First, I’ve got to thank Joe Thien. Joe’s been a big supporter of our program. He loves Cyclone Hockey. […] I can’t thank him enough for making that happen.”
At one point during the drive back to North Dakota, Fairman anticipated walking into the arena as the puck was dropped. The two ended up getting to the rink with a couple of hours to spare. The Division II team made it to the championship game, meaning between the two teams, there were seven games in six days.
Gibbons noted the foundation Fairman built as one of the main factors in the players and coaches being able to make it work throughout the season.
“Getting submerged into this situation obviously helped me grow as a coach,” Gibbons said. “Coach Fairman is great, he helped me with things I wasn’t too sure about yet. Him and I have a really good relationship. We kind of just fed off each other this year.”
As for Fairman, he knows Gibbons was a big part in pulling off the feat that they did.
“I know it wasn’t easy for Coach Gibbons,” Fairman said. “He deserves a lot of credit for hanging in there and putting the hours that he did into the program. I’m very grateful for all of his efforts and all of his hard work.”
Next season, Cyclone Hockey will have three coaches for three teams as Willenborg joins the staff. Despite the hectic schedule, both Fairman and Gibbons are able to look back and be proud of what they accomplished this season. The program has always been a coach by committee format with each coach being involved with each team, according to Fairman, but this year gave him even more of a reason to be with the other two teams, which he enjoyed.
“It was one of the benefits of the season,” Fairman said. “I was able to be more involved than I normally would have been.”
The two are glad for extra help next season, but each poured everything they could into making this one a success.
“It was just a challenging year, for sure, but we’re happy with the outcome,” Gibbons said.