Commentary: West Coast has intriguing history, offers potential for NCHC

Beyond the Colorado Front Range is a strange land of beaches and sun that was once a hotbed of big-time college hockey. Many even say it was home to college hockey’s fiercest rivalry. It’s a place where crowds filled to capacity and recruits from frozen outposts lived like movie stars.

Minnesota’s Ray Wallace (14) goes up against a Southern California player in a 1938 game (photo: The Daily Trojan).

The place is California and the time was long ago. But as college hockey grinds through another tectonic landscape shift, one can’t help but wonder if our game might someday extend west to the Pacific again. And if it did, the effect on college hockey would be truly seismic.

December 1928

Herbert Hoover, a graduate of Stanford and soon to become President of the United States, spurred excitement for the Yosemite winter sports festival by offering a victory cup to the school with the most combined points in skiing, barrel jumping, speed skating and ice hockey. The event captivated California college students and, as Seamus O’Coughlin writes in “Squaw Valley Gold”, hundreds of them arrived in Yosemite National Park for the Christmas week competition, including a robust contingent from the University of Southern California who convinced their athletic director, Gwynn Wilson, to elevate their hockey team to varsity status mere days before the festivities.

Wilson appointed Arnold Eddy, an assistant graduate manager, to be the team’s coach, even though Eddy had never skated and, according to the Los Angeles Times, never even seen ice in the bottom of a glass.

“Take you, your bride and the hockey team up to Yosemite,” Wilson told him, according to a 1987 Sports Illustrated article.

The University of California also sent a team to Yosemite, giving USC an opponent. The Golden Bears won all three of their games and were declared inaugural ice hockey champions, but USC would soon avenge the defeats and be joined at the annual event by newly sprouted teams from UCLA and Loyola University. The winter festival, and West Coast college hockey, had arrived.

Despite increased competition, by 1931, USC became the region’s dominant program, at one point winning 36 straight games. The Trojans’ streak was snapped by Loyola, sparking a bitter rivalry that spilled blood for years to come.

Tom Lieb, a Minnesotan, was the man responsible for building a team mighty enough to beat USC. A former assistant to Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, Lieb was hired by Loyola to build its own catholic school football program, and in his spare time, oversee the hockey team as well.

O’Coughlin writes that Lieb immediately began recruiting burly two-sport stars from Minnesota and selling them on the pleasures of winters in Los Angeles. By 1934-35, Lieb was icing an all-Minnesota line that swept the Yosemite tournament and won the Lions their first West Coast intercollegiate conference title.

Games between USC, now filling its roster with Canadians, and Lieb’s Loyola Minnesotans were quickly becoming blood feuds. In 1936, when rugged John Polich arrived on the Loyola campus from Hibbing, Minn., the battles turned epic. His size and speed were eclipsed only by his mean streak. Paired with fellow Minnesotans like Bob Myre and Stan Peterlin, Polich delighted in tormenting the Trojans. For the next four seasons, he’d play to capacity crowds and bold headlines.

March 1938

Through Minneapolis’ dirty gray snow they trudged, loading overstuffed canvas bags aboard a train bound for the unknown. Two thousand miles later, they stepped off to swaying palms and sunshine beneath the Hollywood Hills.

Never before had the Golden Gophers traveled so far for a hockey game.

They shuttled through the morning streets of Los Angeles, arriving at the swanky Hollywood Plaza Hotel. Rising 10 stories above its stone fountains and dense palm grove patios, the Plaza was an A-list hotspot. Clara Bow and Rex Bell ran their It Café there; Ernest Hemingway checked out shortly before the Gophers arrived.

It was hard to imagine hockey being played here, and no one at the Plaza confused the pallid Minnesota boys for local movie stars, either, though there was one square-jawed block of Italian granite that had leading-role potential.

His name was John Mariucci, a swarthy 190-pound sophomore defenseman already receiving professional offers. The Los Angeles Times predicted he would be the best to play in their city since Syl Apps, then of the Toronto Maple Leafs, while the Daily Trojan lauded Mariucci as the Big Ten’s most outstanding player (though his hometown was misidentified as Hibbing, Minn., “the hometown of several Loyola stars including Polich, Peterlin and Myre.”).

Regardless, Mariucci had never been farther from home in his striped Gophers sweater, and the occasion was an exotic two-game hockey series against USC in Hollywood, followed by a tilt with up-and-coming Gonzaga in Spokane, Wash. It’s the type of cross-country matchup that stirred imaginations, then as now.

Sprouting from the Yosemite festival excitement of the late 1920s, the team at USC had become formidable on a national scale, though they finished second to their intra-city rivals from Loyola in 1937-38, drawing big crowds to the Pan Pacific Auditorium, aka the Polar Palace. The Men of Troy were comprised almost entirely of Canadian imports. It was the only way they could compete with Loyola’s Minnesotans. Now the Minnesotans, in maroon and gold, were here for an unprecedented spectacle (though not to play Loyola, allegedly as a protest of the Lions’ recruiting in the North Star State).

“The Gophers are probably the finest passing sextet ever appearing here under collegiate colors,” wrote Charles Curtis in the Los Angeles Times, which portrayed USC as a substantial underdog.

After a pair of Thursday practices, Minnesota arrived at the Polar Palace early for Friday’s 8:30 p.m. faceoff against USC. A sizable crowd, spurred by the Daily Trojan predicting a sellout, had already gathered. The final turnstile count would be approximately 3,500. It was the city’s marquee sporting event, drawing top headlines in the Times.

USC scored first, with Nat Harty beating Earl Petrich, Minnesota’s diminutive goaltender. Unbeknown to the West Coast sportswriters, Petrich himself was an interesting story. He was a tennis player with nary a single college hockey game to his credit prior to becoming Minnesota’s starting netminder in 1938. He weighed scarcely more than his goaltending equipment and made the trip to California despite a still-mending facial fracture sustained a month earlier when a Michigan skater hit him between the eyes with a shot.

He volunteered for this unusual brand of icy abuse when Marty Falk, Minnesota’s intended starter, was ruled ineligible shortly before the Gophers’ first game of the season. Petrich telephoned Gophers head coach Larry Armstrong and offered to tend his goal. Out of alternatives and time, Armstrong accepted. And that’s how a 112-pound tennis player became mighty Minnesota’s goalie in 1938.

Petrich surrendered another USC goal later in the period, with Earl Robson converting a pass from Benny Novicki, an Alberta native and the “classiest front line skater in the local league” according to the Times.

The Gophers mounted a third-period comeback, with John Hoakenson scoring to make it 2-1, but Harty soon restored USC’s two-goal lead. Then Mariucci fed a pass to fellow Iron Ranger Frank St. Vincent, who scored to bring the Gophers back within one. It was as close as they’d come. USC scored two more goals to stun the pundits with a 5-2 win.

In the following evening’s rematch, Minnesota again found itself trailing late until Mariucci scored twice to even the score at 3-3. But a Mariucci turnover with less than two minutes remaining gave Robson a clear rush at Petrich, who by all accounts played brilliantly in the series. Unfortunately for the Gophers, he couldn’t stop Robson’s breakaway, and USC triumphed once again to gain a sweep.

It was a bold arrival on the scene for California college hockey.

Minnesota left Los Angeles in a wave of ridicule from a Times columnist and promptly suffered another resounding defeat in Washington against Gonzaga, played before a capacity crowd of 3,000 at the Elm Street Arena.

One year later, Gonzaga, with future Toronto Maple Leafs player Frank McCool in goal, would complete back-to-back West Coast amateur championship seasons by beating Loyola 1-0 in Los Angeles.

Fast forward

College hockey was something of a supernova on the West Coast, burning bright for a decade before World War II shuttered several programs. But unlike in the traditional hockey hotbeds, in California, the big-time collegiate game never came back to life.

Could Division I college hockey be reborn on the West Coast? Certainly there are more obstacles today, many of them budgetary and compliance-related, but there’s more upside as well, especially for the NCHC.

A rebirth of West Coast teams, a western division with the likes of USC, Arizona State and others joining Denver and Colorado College, would truly make it a national conference — with all the power and wealth that would accompany such a masterstroke.

A leader with the vision, tenacity and business acumen to make it happen would seismically change not only college hockey, but the entire balance of power in North America’s player development model. And given the growth and improvement of youth hockey from the Rockies west, the modern-era California teams wouldn’t have to rely on recruits from Canada and Minnesota to succeed — though they’d likely have their pick.

Talk about recruiting battles. They’d be some of the fiercest talent fights since Lieb mowed Minnesota’s lawn in the 1930s.

It would be a brave new world for college hockey, and at the same time, something of a renaissance, too.


  1. While the NCHC might be the initial winner of West Coast Hockey expansion in the college ranks, I suspect that the PAC-12 starting six+ teams at one fell swoop is a more likely long-term result. Possible schools would probably be added as pairs: Washington/Washington State, Oregon/Oregon State, Cal/Stanford, USC/UCLA, Arizona/Arizona State, Colorado/Utah. Ironically, of all these schools, Colorado would probably have the toughest route to gain traction, because of the strength of DU, CC and Air Force.

    Do not discount the possibility of a PAC-12 pulling in a couple of hockey-only affiliate programs, the way Big Ten Lacrosse just pulled in Johns Hopkins. That would be a logical model for the Alaska schools.

    The reason the PAC-12 would more likely form its own league (with a minimum of six teams) would be television.

    • I like how you name all of those West Coast Teams who are currently playing ACHA hockey but leave off San Jose State which routinely spanks most of those listed. Not only that but the Sharks are likely building a Junior A stadium next door to SJSU’s home ice which would dovetail nicely with a D1 entry by State.

      • I was listing PAC-12 schools that might form a PACHC as a subset of the PAC-12. I certainly think any school wanting to field a program outside of PAC-12 would be able to do so, either as part of NCHC or WCHA. I think I got all the PAC-12 schools correct.

        My suspicion is that no single university will add a program without a nearby partner. The partner would provide a natural rival, some one to travel with or mutual opponents to travel to during a weekend.

        I know very little about San Jose State, but I would welcome them (or any other program) to the Division I fold. I am sure there are other programs that might also be in a better current state of readiness than the PAC-12 schools. I would love to hear more about them. San Jose seems, from your description, to be as good a site as any on the West Coast for a new D-I program.

  2. I’d love to see west coast college hockey, but would it really change the game and recruiting much? Alabama-Huntsville is from a non-traditional market and they really haven’t had an impact on the game or recruiting.

    • Personally, I know that BU has recruited many players from “non-hockey hotbeds” like California, Texas, Pennsylvania, etc. A lot more people are playing the sport and there are more developmental leagues.

      Will hockey surpass football or baseball in many states? No, I do not think so, but at the same time, the flow of the best players from such states to big time hockey programs in the NCAA shows the potential.

      Some of BU’s best players in the recent past have come from what some might call non-hockey states.

    • I think the biggest reason UAH hasn’t impacted the landscape much in Alabama is, because really, its Alabama. UAH doesn’t have nearly as strong a brand down there as say, Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, LSU, or any of those types of schools. I know PA is closer to a traditional hockey place than AL is, but it would be like, if Duquesne or Villanova added D1 hockey, versus Penn State. Duquesne and Villanova definitely have fan bases, but they are a much more local appeal with locals in the towns and the much smaller alumni base. Conversely, Penn State kind of represents PA on the whole, and has a huge, much more national fan base. The introduction of Penn State basically was the impetus for the massive realignment with the creation of B10HC. If the Crimson Tide, or any of the Pac12 schools (or SEC, ACC, B12) decided to start D1 programs in hockey, it would be another seismic shift in both college and development hockey. Those schools wouldn’t put out hockey teams for the hell of it, they would want winners. so you could definitely see a push to bring in more high level talent from around the world, and if those teams got good, you know they would rapidly grow local fan bases

      • The next shoe to drop in terms of conferences would be a potential ACCHC. Boston College and Notre Dame are already ACC members (Notre Dame non-football sports). It only takes 4 more ACC schools to get an autobid, which is the criteria of any such league forming.

        If UConn joins ACC in the future, that would lower the bar to three schools. Pitt and Syracuse would seem to be in the driver’s seat, with UVA, VT, UNC, Duke, NC State and Louisville being the next tier, in my mind.

        There are plenty of NHL/AHL fans in the alumni bases of these schools. Also, how cool would those new uniforms look?

        • While an ACC conference would take BC out of the way for a conference title, it would really hurt the conference. BC is a huge draw and considered a rival for not just BU, but UNH and Maine as well (really, all teams love/hate seeing BC come to the arena). While I think bringing the “big boys” of college sports into D1 hockey would be good overally, it could definitely relegate smaller schools to mid-major status. I think you’d also see a call for a greater number of teams for the post season, as automatic bids increase.

          • I absolutely agree. I hope it does not come to this, but as always, it is the almighty dollar that drives things.

            I am not sure how many people are aware, but the Big Ten just added Johns Hopkins as a “provisional” member in Lacrosse only, so that the Big Ten can get an autobid in Lacrosse. Lacrosse and Hockey are comparable sports in terms of revenue.

            The only thing that would remain would be the Beanpot and select season series. Losing Notre Dame and/or UConn to ACCHC is no different from today’s landscape. However, I am not sure what NBCSN would do long-term. I suspect they would go with the big names (Notre Dame) instead of the rich New England HE history.

            These are my worries for Hockey East long-term. Just ask WCHA/CCHA how they feel today. It also might spur a ECAC split between Ivy League and non-Ivies. I see lots of potential ugliness.

  3. I definitely think college hockey could survive, if not thrive on the west coast. I know Seattle is looking for a pro team, but a D1 team from UW might be a good start. And UNH has recruited a number of kids from southern CA and AZ over the last decade, so I think you have something of a fertile spot to start looking at developing D1 hockey at the major schools out west.

    • I suspect PAC-12 and ACC might look into hockey leagues sooner than SEC/Big XII. If NBCSN, CBSSN and BTN have decent ratings, I cannot see why other universities and conferences would not follow suit.

      Also, we should not discount the women’s game in these discussions. BU has shown how you can start a program successfully.

      You are so right about players coming from many “newer” states, unfamiliar to many hockey fans. This is a great thing for our sport.

  4. I enjoyed reading this article and it gives a good perspective regarding college hockey on the west coast. Is there a reason you didn’t mention anything about the Great West Hockey Conference that began in the 1980’s? Is there a reason these SoCal and other West Coast schools didn’t try to move into this league at that time?

  5. Great article, but just cannot see any school from the west cost coming into D1 hockey in the coming years, The cost of running a hockey program and arena. Its all about the money. Even the Big Ten which is in the middle of hockey country plus has the Big Ten network can only come up with 6 teams. Look at the school like Nebraska, Iowa, Northwestern they are in the middle of USHL country and they are not even looking at starting up a Hockey programs.

    I can tell you there may be a new conference in a couple of years, the Great Lakes Conference D2 conference in all sports other than hockey. The conference already have four schools Ferris State, Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan, and Lake State. Plus Wayne State had a D1 team a couple of years ago, and Grand Valley State in Grand Rapids Mi (becoming a hot bed of hockey in the State of MI), and you have Mercyhurst was in the conference a couple of years ago. If they can get the 6 teams in and get that bid to the NCAA watch out WCHA.

  6. A Seattle U or University of Washington. A University of Portland or Portland State. A San Jose State, Stanford or San Francisco U. A USC, UCLA, UC-Irvine, Long Beach State. A Grand Canyon University or Arizona State. They could all make money. And athletic departments like to make money! Title IX is the one issue for many athletic departments, but many could look at dropping Track or the Portland and Seattle schools could look at dropping baseball and instead add hockey. Guarantee they will create greater interest in their community, media attention and make a lot more MONEY than track or baseball (for northern states) – I would love to see an Athletic Director, a true visionary make it work…..

    • The cost of a D1 hockey program will running between 2 and 4 mill per year, and that is if the program has an arena to play in. Take a look at the cost of the new Penn State arena well over 80 mill. So when people start talking about making money there are big big cost in Hockey

      • All the schools I listed are in major cities with ice arena’s all ready. And Track and baseball budgets are very similar to hockey operating budgets, track is even more. And you will NEVER make money with track unless you are Oregon or LSU

        • No West Coast Team is going to give up baseball, and there is not track team that has a 3 mil budget. Plus just because there are hockey arena in the major city doesn’t help. Hockey is a sport for the students and the top school all have campus arenas. Please give me one major hockey program arena that’s not on the campus. Plus if the team is using a major city arena they still need a place to practice and train. Take a look at UNO. they are moving out of the city arena and building a new campus arena

          • Colorado College plays off campus. Minnesota-Duluth plays off campus. Providence plays off campus. UMass-Lowell plays off campus…. And track includes Indoor & Outdoor with scholarships, travel, number of participants, coaches salaries it is just as expensive and in some cases more expenses than hockey. And back to the major point – track does not sell tickets or raise much money thru donors – definitely not like hockey does. A smart Athletic Director should look at the option.

          • Many schools out West all ready have Club Hockey programs. So ice arena’s and much of the budget is all ready there. Now just add scholarships and big coaches salaries.
            A smart creative AD can do it!
            Look at the Hockey vs. Track (and North of California/Arizona even look at Baseball) and the Revenues vs. Expenses. And a good AD will even look at the media attention and community involvement it will gain. Hockey is the smart choice! Not everyone needs a brand new Arena and endowed program like Penn State did to make this work and be a winner.

          • Excellent post. UMass Lowell bought the Tsongas Arena to make its program equal to the main campus in Amherst through the work of Marty Meehan


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