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Druley: NIU hockey comes to Fox Valley Ice Arena

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012 5:33 a.m. CDT

Paul O’Dacre preached the value of two-way hockey as a coach, and has continued the practice as Fox Valley Ice Arena manager.

He sees another balanced equation in the rink’s newest tenant. The Northern Illinois club program comes to Geneva with a clean slate this season as arena officials happily pencil the Huskies in among their open dates.

NIU spent its past five American Collegiate Hockey Association seasons at Leafs Ice Centre in West Dundee, but several circumstances steered the program closer to home. With a handful of high school and junior teams transitioning away from Fox Valley, O’Dacre and Co. welcomed the Huskies with open arms.

“They reached out to us, we reached out to them and we both said this might be a nice fit for the other,” O’Dacre said. “We started on solid footing, and we’re looking forward to building from there.”

Leafs expanded its involvement with the facility’s Triple-A and other club teams, prompting NIU general manager Ian Kalanges to seek out O’Dacre. The Huskies practiced at Fox Valley at times last season, but did not play any games there.

NIU offers separate ACHA Division II and Division III teams, with its rosters heavily comprised of players from Chicagoland and the western suburbs.

Defenseman Mike Hansen, a St. Charles product, ranked third in the league in defensemen points last season. Forward Justin Rucinski previously played for the North American Hockey League’s Chicago Hitmen, a high-level junior team which called Fox Valley home in 2011-12.

In mid-May, the NAHL released a brief statement announcing the Hitmen would not compete in the league for the 2012-13 season amid a series of off-ice woes. O’Dacre said NIU was in Fox Valley’s radar regardless of the Hitmen’s standing.

“The level of hockey is pretty darn good. They’ve got a nice fit of kids with either junior hockey experience, Triple-A experience and some good high school Double-A experience,” O’Dacre said. “The level of play will be on par if not better with what we had here last year with the North American team.

“Just because it’s club hockey doesn’t mean the caliber of play is less. It’s just a matter of how old the program is and the kind of support they get from the athletic department.”

NIU enjoys a solid student and administrative support base and an emerging network of program alums. Kalanges played for the Huskies from 2004-09 as he completed his undergraduate coursework and transitioned into graduate studies in sports management, a degree he finished in May.

Kalanges works full time as director of ticket sales for the Chicago Bandits professional softball team, but doesn’t think twice about his volunteer role at his alma mater.

Much of the heavier lifting – securing travel sponsors, game setup and equipment orders – takes place in the summer. The load lightens during the season, and is often condensed to emails and phone calls Kalanges tends to in his idle time.

Lately, he has taken to distributing pocket schedules and posters to DeKalb businesses, as well as locations closer to the Huskies’ home rink. The team’s home opener against Robert Morris is set for Sept. 28. Kalanges hopes there’s a solid pocket of students on hand on a Friday night.

“It’s a straight 30-minute shot from campus [via Route 38 east], and on top of that they have a very nice seating facility and nice accommodations for the team,” Kalanges said. “We’re definitely excited about it.”

From where Fox Valley is skating, the feeling is mutual.

Kevin Druley is a sports writer for the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5347 or kdruley@shawmedia.com.

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