Hotbed of Hockey?
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
There was a time — perhaps in a day when it was cheaper to have a team — there existed all sorts of college hockey programs in disparate places. San Diego and St. Louis, for example, and Arizona. Northern Arizona, to be precise, in Flagstaff, and the team was pretty good.
Northern Arizona began a club program in the mid-'70s, and quickly moved it to varsity status. After a relatively meteoric rise over three years, the program was gone as quickly as it appeared, relegated to the footnote of history. In fact, it may not have even been a footnote were it not for the 17-year NHL career of Greg Adams, who played two seasons at NAU.
"You want to talk about Northern Arizona and the hockey program, you might mention Greg Adams, but the guy who was really the guy who had the vision was a professor named Caple," said Jim Peters, the head coach at Northern Arizona for three of the five years the program existed. "He deseves all the credit. He was a chemistry professor who came in from North Dakota. ... He almost lost his job over hockey."
Eventually, Peters and hockey left and the professor stayed.
Peters, who is now the athletic director Vermont Academy, a prep school, coached the club team at NAU after retiring from the minor-league hockey grind in 1976. His wife was from Southern California, and the couple figured it was an interesting location. And when the school offered to pay Peters' tuition to finish his degree, he was in. He stayed there to finish his bachelor's degree, but the school wasn't yet willing to turn varsity, so he went to Michigan and became a substitute teacher while working at a golf course.
It wasn't too much longer, 1981, when the athletic director called Peters and said the school was finally ready to begin a varsity program. But Peters came in cold, in May, just five months before the start of the season.
"I was taking kids sight unseen," said Peters, who tapped into his old pro contacts.
But he got Adams, in the program's second year, from someone he didn't know at all.
"He called me and said we have a good kid here," Peters said. "Potentially a real good player. His first year, he wasn't the best player, but his second year, he just took off."
Adams also took off for the pros after his second year, Peters' third. Then Peters took off, and only two years later, so did the entire Northern Arizona program.
"We used to have the same officials every [home] game because we weren't going to pay to drive them in from Duluth. It was the same two guys for every game, from Phoenix. They became kinda homers."
Former Northern Arizona coach Jim Peters
The genesis of the program came with the building of the Skydome, an 18,000-seat football stadium where roller blading and hockey could take place in one corner, and basketball in another. When the president who presided over that project left, the new president got behind varsity hockey. But the real visionary was the chemistry professor from North Dakota.
"A lot of people didn't want it," Peters said.
"The dome itself was not a great place to watch. There was only seating on one side. You could have a seat way down in the corner and you had to look way down in the other corner to see the rink. The stands up one side probably seated about 4,000 people."
Peters, then in his mid-30s with no recruiting experience, started from scratch on a bare bones budget, sleeping in airports on recruiting trips in order to save money.
"There was always some players left over," he said. "I tried to establish relationships. The coach at Notre Dame [in Saskatchewan], I took his son. He was just an average player.
"The AD at that time I don't think really wanted hockey. He was a basketball guy."
The first varsity game Northern Arizona played was against North Dakota. The Fighting Sioux went on to win the national championship that year.
"It wasn't pretty," Peters said.
It wasn't all like that. The team played mostly Canadian universities or club teams. They went 5-19.
But by season two, things improved dramatically. The record was 17-11-1, and the schedule, with Adams now in the fold, included quite a few big shots.
"We went back to East and played in RPI tournament. We lost to Lowell [in the opener]," Peters remembered. "It was Lowell, RPI and Yale. ... We beat Yale [in the consolation]. Then we went to UNH and beat them, and went into BU and they beat us 6-5.
"Adams played great, and the scouts said, 'Who is this kid?' He got on the map. That was probably the first time he got noticed, when we were playing BU."
Time apparently hasn't healed the Lowell loss, though.
"We blew it. They scored two goals in the last 30 seconds or something. It was the most I saw players really hurt. We had the game won."
But there were big wins to come. Because of the proximity to Colorado, CC and Denver were on the schedule. And one of the biggest moments of Peters' three years was defeating Colorado College. The next game, CC returned the favor with a 5-0 win, which featured a brawl.
"I was so mad at the players," he said. "I'm screaming at them between periods, 'These guys don't need us.'"
But Northern Arizona didn't have to worry about unfair treatment from the officials.
"We used to have the same officials every [home] game because we weren't going to pay to drive them in from Duluth," said Peters. "It was the same two guys for every game, from Phoenix. They became kinda homers."
By year three, Northern Arizona was a veritable juggernaut, racking up a 21-6 record and earning a call from Michigan State coach Ron Mason, then chair of the NCAA ice hockey committee. NAU was in contention for an at-large NCAA tournament bid.
"We split with Denver, we split with CC," said Peters. "I told them we'd be flattered to go [to the NCAAs] but they didn't pick us."
And then the dream began to end. Adams indicated he wanted to leave school, and asked Peters for advice.
"I talked to [then-Edmonton Oilers general manager] Glen Sather — I had played with him a bit," Peters said. "There was a team in the low minors in Phoenix at that time and Glen had a guy come up and take a look. Sather said they'd bring him to camp and guarantee him more than a couple days. They brought him in, but [cut him].
"I called a number of managers in NHL. They'd say, 'Who are you, don't call me back.' But I played with [then-Los Angeles GM] Rogie Vachon — he was going to be in San Diego and I said [Adams] is worth taking a look. ... Greg didn't have a very good game that game. [They] said he needed to get in against better competition."
Soon thereafter, Adams signed with the New Jersey Devils, embarking on a 17-year NHL career that included 1,056 games and 355 goals.
"I always wondered what [Vachon] thought," said Peters.
And then Peters decided he'd had enough as well.
"I had a young family. It was very difficult coaching and recruiting at the same time," Peters said. "I had [former NAU club player] Doug Allan who was an assistant, but I really did the recruiting.
"I said, 'I'm not sure if this success is going to continue.' And I didn't want my job depending on college guys who some, frankly, weren't that serious. I was more serious than them. I asked [the school] at the time, 'If you drop the program, would you guarantee me a job at the school.' They said, 'I can't do that.'"
John Mason, a former assistant at Ohio State, was brought in to replace Peters, but the program had seasons of 12 and 11 wins, and things were looking bleak.
"The last year of varsity hockey there, I met John and had a chance to talk to him. He was taking a team over with a lot of guys that graduated," said Peters. "It was not a great situation for him. I was a very different coach. I wasn't as tough as I should have been — although it worked. [Mason] was a real disciplinarian and some guys couldn't handle it."
In the end, there were too many problems to overcome, especially one in particular ... the rink.
"That last year, they had big problems with the ice facility. The piping underneath wasn't a very good setup," Peters said.
With the rink in disrepair, Northern Arizona had to practice at a local rink, and play home games in Phoenix, three hours away.
"They'd have to spend big bucks to repair the rink, so they said they were just going to drop program," said Peters. "It was very difficult. At the time, you couldn't fly out of there. The big jets didn't fly out. It was three ours [by bus] to the Phoenix Airport.
"We'd bus it to U.S. International [in San Diego]. We played them eight times a year, it was a nasty rivalry. That was 10 hours. It was 14 hours to Colorado Springs to play Air Force and CC, we used to bus that trip."
After five years, the college hockey's Arizona experiment was over.
Meanwhile, Peters, who had tried his hand at teaching middle school history, wasn't happy, so he hit up Mike Addesa — then coach at RPI, who he met at the RPI tournament — for a job. He helped in recruiting the year after RPI won the 1985 national championship, and was able to land a prized catch — Joe Juneau.
"He never spoke a word of English," Peters said. "Joe Hardy, his [junior] coach, spoke English. I played with him. [Juneau] respected the fact that I was a player and we negotiated with him through his uncle, a travel agent in Ottawa. ... It was between Maine, Colgate and RPI, but he wanted to be an engineer — he came for that program."
The hockey world being so small, Peters is still connected in tangential ways. His son Tim played a handful of games in goal for Vermont in recent years. Peters played pro hockey with new Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon's dad. Peters' own father, Jim Sr., won three Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings in the '40s and '50s.
As for hockey in the desert, well, the Arizona club program draws crowds upwards of 8,000 people per game. Peters said too many obstacles remain, though, for college hockey to hold its breath about an NCAA team in Arizona again.
Meanwhile, he's content in Vermont, happy to fondly recall a time, however brief, when he helped a Division I school in Flagstaff, Arizona, play some pretty good college hockey.