American International College entered Division One hockey in the 1998-99 season. Prior to this season, the Yellow Jackets were 160-461-68 in Division One. With a 23-17-1 season this year, it was the programs first winning season as a D1 team in history. It was also the first time the team won Atlantic Hockey in the regular season, the post-season, and locked in a spot for the National Tournament. Not only that, but it yielded the team’s first tournament win on Friday, as they beat St. Cloud State.
It’s a path that AIC head coach Eric Lang has paved in his three years behind the bench. It’s a path that he saw last season in the team as they seemed to have turned a corner within the conference.
“I think three years ago, we were hoping to win hockey games,” Lang mentioned before the tournament began. “I think last year we thought we can win some hockey games and I think our belief this year is every time we get on the ice, we have an expectation we’re going to win. It’s been really nice to witness the transformation from thinking and hoping to expecting.”
Of course, in a smaller school in a smaller conference, the pickings are a bit slim when it comes to wanting to be a Yellow Jacket. Prior to the year, AIC was 23-40-12, which didn’t really make the school desirable to some prospective student-athletes.
“Three years ago when I was making phone calls from a four, five, six-win team, it’s hard to get guys to call you back,” Lang mentioned after AIC’s loss Saturday. “It’s a little easier when you’re regular season conference champs, when you win your playoffs, and you’re making recruiting calls from first place. We’re squeezing in as many phone calls as we can in 24 hours from yesterday into today. You have to ride that momentum and recruiting. I think our program has a lot to offer.”
Lang continued, “It’s really important that we stay with an ‘A’ mindset player and we’re not tempted in recruiting anything else but the ‘A’ mindset. That supersedes everything. It actually supersedes our talent. If they’ve got an ‘A’ mindset, we know they’re going to develop, we know they’re going to be great human beings, and we know they’re going to get better.”
This AIC group will be losing three seniors: defenseman Ryan Polin, forward Shawn McBride, and graduate transfer player/mentor Ryan Papa. While all three were leaving after the loss on Saturday, all three had glowing reviews of the school.
“It was an awesome ride going from four years ago to where the program is today it’s unbelievable,” said McBride. “I was just fortunate enough to get a place to play college hockey and to be given lot of opportunity and I’ve met some many great people along the way. Tons of great memories and I feel very, very fortunate.”
“I was fortunate enough to extend my college career to six years,” mentioned Papa who came to AIC from St. Cloud State and had his career finish last season due to concussions. “This program shaped my life and I can’t thank the core staff enough for giving me a second chance here. I couldn’t think of a better group of guys to end my hockey career with.”
“We won seven games our freshman year and to see the program evolve, it’s been amazing to be a part of,” Polin added. “All the guys were buying into what coach Lang has put in our head.”
“I want to thank the athletic administration and coach Lang for revitalizing our program and made coming to the rink so much fun and helped us win games, which is so much fun,” McBride added.
With all these firsts out of the way and all of the national attention, it may be hard to replicate that for AIC if they don’t have the right mindset that coach Lang has put forth. However, he knows that the biggest thing for his team is to not be satisfied for just being there.
“You can’t be satisfied if you don’t win the last game of the year. You constantly have to have that carrot in front of you,” mentioned Lang. “We went from here (conference champions) to here (playoff champions) to here (NCAA tournament). Hopefully, I’m back in this seat next year and we’re moving on because that’s the progression of this program. We return a whole bunch of players next year, these guys will go in and like the taste of this and want to advance this thing another step. That’s really important that these guys stay hungry.”
The core of returned players like goalie Zackarias Skog, forward Joel Kocur, and defenseman Brennan Kapcheck, who all played amazing in the West Regional, the AIC Yellow Jackets have started a solid resume for their future. If nothing else, they won the hearts of the people at the Fargo regional. While it started as a foil for the St. Cloud State fans, the AIC bandwagon grew after the win, as their shirts were sold out before the end of the game Saturday night.
While their season didn’t end the way they wanted to Saturday night, it’s one that they won’t soon forget.
“I’m proud of this group, I think they’ve changed the landscape of AIC hockey. And I told them as you get a little older in life, life’s about making memories and these guys made a bunch of memories this season for each other,” Lang mentioned. “They made a bunch of memories for me and my family, and I’ll be forever grateful to them. The tough part about this group is that I don’t get to be with them for another couple of weeks. So, selfishly I want to be with these guys. I have been with them since August 30. I haven’t had a bad day since August 30. I love these guys and just very proud of them.”