College Hockey:
For Puskar, American International, it’s all about the chances

The Yellow Jackets junior appreciates having the opportunity to play Division I hockey and beat quality opponents.

In terms of national perception for Atlantic Hockey, it used to be that there were the haves, the have-nots and teams that fall in the middle.

The outside perception of American International's program doesn't matter, junior forward Jon Puskar says (photo: Omar Phillips).

The outside perception of American International’s program doesn’t matter, junior forward Jon Puskar says (photo: Omar Phillips).

That doesn’t matter to Jon Puskar.

For the American International junior forward, it’s not about who has the money, the glittery arena or the television contract. It’s only, as he puts it, “an opportunity to do something not many are given, and we appreciate every moment of it.”

That opportunity is the chance to play Division I hockey.

Despite a resource chasm separating some of the teams in the AHA, the gap for on-ice competition narrowed over the past couple of years.

For AIC, that means no longer looking at a schedule and seeing guaranteed losses. It instead means a chance to beat any opponent on any given night, sometimes shocking the college hockey world but never shocking themselves.

Last year, for the first time in his tenure and the first time since the AHA formed after a split with the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference after the 2002-03 season, the Jackets finished out of the basement, winning eight games and finishing 10th in the 12-team league.

It might not seem like much, but it’s something for a team that hasn’t won 10 games since that final season of the MAAC.

“Our team has had a great group of guys the last couple of years,” Puskar said. “They show up to the rink every day looking to improve individually and as a team. We have the ability to win every time we touch the ice; it just comes down to game-day execution.”

Game-day execution is something the Yellow Jackets have sorely lacked in the past. They gave up 137 goals a year ago and they were swept by six league opponents. They gave up 15 goals in a two-game series against Air Force and went 0-3 against both eastern scheduling opponents Holy Cross and Bentley.

But it’s hard to ignore that three players scored 10 goals last year, and AIC recorded season series wins against both Sacred Heart and Army, with the latter record at 2-0-1. In the playoffs, the team showed off its unknown scoring prowess, tipping the six-goal mark and beating Robert Morris 7-5 in Game 2 before losing the deciding third game.

It’s that type of marquee win that has exemplified AIC each season. It beat Robert Morris twice last year and it beat Mercyhurst, a team that had a first-round bye.

Two years ago, the Yellow Jackets beat Air Force and swept Mercyhurst. This year, they’ve already beaten ECAC foe Quinnipiac and they spoiled the debut of Penn State with a 3-2 overtime victory.

They’re tied for 10th again early this season and have a 3-5-2 overall record.

Still, there’s work to be done.

“It all boils down to consistency,” Puskar said. “We’ve had a good start to the year but we can’t get complacent. We need to show up and play 60 minutes in every game.”

Still, that won’t silence the critics of the AIC program, regardless of wins and losses. With the ever-changing landscape of college hockey, arguments about which programs should live and die inevitably center on the ones perceived as have-nots.

The Yellow Jackets ranked last in attendance every season since 2000, occasionally dipping their average attendance below 200 fans per game. They play at the Olympia Ice Center in Springfield, Mass., far different from places like Conte Forum, Agganis Arena or Yost Ice Arena. That inevitably leads to the opinion by some that AIC should cease its hockey existence.

But what most people leave out is that AIC has a 984 APR ranking tracking academic progress — better than Boston College, Minnesota and Miami, among others.

“[The perception of the program] is something that we don’t really think about, to be honest,” Puskar said. “We just show up every day to compete at a high level, and we can’t worry about things outside of our locker room.

“It’s all about appreciating your four years to take full advantage of all your resources, whether it’s on the ice with coaches, in the locker room with teammates or in the classroom with professors. We have the chance to use all of these tools so we can help ourselves to be better athletes, students, and people.”

The following is a self-policing forum for discussing views on this story. Comments that are derogatory, make personal attacks, are abusive, or contain profanity or racism will be removed at our discretion. USCHO.com is not responsible for comments posted by users. Please report any inappropriate or offensive comments by clicking the “Flag” link next to that comment in order to alert the moderator.

Please also keep “woofing,” taunting, and otherwise unsportsmanlike behavior to a minimum. Your posts will more than likely be deleted, and worse yet, you reflect badly on yourself, your favorite team and your conference.

  • disqus_mZxjZyRs5P

    Great article on a team that gets almost no media attention, even in its own Springfield, Ma. area. My self and three of my brothers have been UMASS Minutemen hockey season ticket holders for the last ten years. When these teams schedules don’t conflict we go to the A.I.C. games at the Olympia Ice Center which by the way is not in Springfield, Ma. but the smaller and more homey town of West Springfield, Ma. where we live. I believe they don’t draw better because it is so cold and uncomfortable inside to watch a game, and I have never heard any advertising for this team.

    We have seen some really great games played by the Yellow Jackets. This season we watched them beat Quinnipiac 2-1 at their rink where the penalties were really called lopsidedly against A.I.C., Last year we watched them at Brown university where they won 3-0, we watched them at Dartmouth a few years earlier where they took a 3-2 lead to the 19:99 minute mark of the third period and watched them settle for a 3-3 tie. They traveled to Mich. Tech last year opening their season with a heart break loss to the Huskies 4-3 after having a three goal lead, and the year before they opened at Minnesota State with a 1-0 tough played loss. These kids almost always give you a good entertaining game to watch. And the last couple of years they have had pretty good success against the better teams in Atlantic hockey like R.I.T., Robert Morris, Mercyhurst, and Army. Atlantic Hockey is definitely getting more competitive.

    This year it was great to actually see some teams from another conference make a trip to the Olympia. Frozen Four team “Union”, and Alabama-Huntsville came in this October and A.I.C. took a 4-3 win against Huntsville. Hopefully in the future A.I.C. will get one or two visitors from another conference each year to spice things up a little bit. It’s a shame that when a team like “Union” is willing to come in that A.I.C. a Springfield, Ma. college couldn’t work out an arrangement with the Mass Mutual Center in Springfield where the AHL Springfield Falcons play. Other college, and even local high school teams play some of their games there prior a Springfield Falcons game. I think it would be beneficial to both organizations, and would let A.I.C. showcase it self a little bit locally.

  • Fan Man

    Sometimes falling below 200 fans a game… That is an astonishing number! A correct one though? its just hard to believe a D1 program (not matter how bad) could have that bad of a following. We had more fans than that at our high school hockey games

  • dupree

    200 fans? thats being generous @ AIC, the Atlantic league is laughable, half the teams get around 200-400 fans a night and thats being generous. AIC, SHU,UCONN,CC, Mercyhurst hardly get fans, make a d2 league and stick with that for these teams.

  • College Hockey Fan

    1st of all great article, really neat insight into the mentality of players at program that annually posts losing records, if the players all have the same mentality as this kid AIC could be sniffing around the 500 mark in a few years which would be a huge victory for the program.

    At first I had the same response as the 2nd and 3rd posters regarding the lack of fan support but I’m also assuming (maybe incorrectly) that dupree and Fan Man are from out west…Let me explain, I think part of the reason for the lack of fan support is geographical, in the western leagues it is rare for more than 2 or 3 teams to share a general area so even if they are bad they get relatively good attendance numbers… I just did some very basic research and came up with these rough numbers. There are 50+ college hockey programs (D1 and D3) within a 150 mile radius of Boston, in that same area there are 5 AHL teams (1 in Springfield itself as mentioned in the article), and the Bruins when they are playing, not to mention countless prep, high school, and junior teams. I think this at least partially accounts for the lack of public support in Springfield. There is so much hockey in the area and if a school doesn’t seem committed to winning there are plenty of other places to watch good hockey. There are also a good deal of d3 programs in the area that could beat AIC so it’s not like “D1″ is very alluring unless a big time program is in town (and as they Bobby Vogel mentioned AIC has a tough time scheduling exciting home games). Of course this doesn’t explain the complete lack of student body support, but there are only 1,500 students at AIC, the rink is off campus, and as the article said the team hasn’t finished higher than last place in Atlantic Hockey in 10 years…all these things together, i think contribute to the lack of attendance numbers.

    With all that said I hope AIC can continue their turn-a-round, have some good years, and maybe draw 5 or 6 hundred fans per game in the future.

North Dakota 2016 National ChampionsBNY Mellon Wealth Management