Lee Noel has experienced many ups and downs in his three years as a member of Creighton’s club hockey team.
He started as a freshman, then nearly saw the entire season canceled his sophomore year. Now as a junior, Noel is excited about the prospects of the upcoming season.
The Bluejays are set to move into the new Ralston Arena this fall. They are also in talks to set up a contest with Nebraska as part of the Feb. 9 “Battles on Ice,” which already features an outdoor doubleheader with UNO and Omaha Lancer games at TD Ameritrade Park.
“It’s been really exciting for us,” Noel said. “We’re doing everything we need to do to make a legitimate program.”
Creighton plays in the American Collegiate Hockey Association, which is made up of college club teams and split into three divisions. The Jays are a member of division three, along with South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Iowa State among others.
Noel came to Creighton in 2010 after graduating from Sioux City Heelan. He had been in contact with Chris Inserra, the hockey team’s president, that summer, and arrived on campus as one of two goaltenders.
“We had a lot of good players,” Noel said. “It was a pretty serious team.”
Though Noel was impressed with his new teammates on the ice, it was their dedication to school that really got his attention.
“The hockey culture isn’t very conducive to studying for the most part,” he said. “But you get here and it’s easy to see that guys’ priorities are school first.”
The team went 7-11-2 Noel’s freshman year, and the Jays were optimistic about the following season. However, miscommunication between coach and players — current and prospective — doomed the team in 2011.
“We didn’t really have a good recruitment network set up,” Noel said. “We didn’t know who was coming in from where, and we had no foundation going into the school year.”
The team had a meeting at the beginning of last season. Without recruiting new players or reaching out to prospective ones, coach Eric Thompson debated on whether to play the season at all.
“A lot of it came down to numbers,” Thompson said. “It’s tough getting guys to commit, especially at a school like Creighton where school comes first.”
Noel tried to convince his coach to give the season a try, but Thompson thought there was no use with 10 players. Noel decided, even without a coach, that the team had to play, not only for the current players but for future ones. He took the reins of the team to try to salvage the season.
“It was a skeleton of a team,” Noel said. “It was almost crazy to be out there.
“I felt like we had a commitment, not only to the other teams on our schedule, but to Creighton University (who sponsors the team), and we owed it to our program not to let it die. I thought if we took the year off, there was going to be a very reduced chance of us coming back in the future.”
The season was filled with mishaps: A 10-2 loss after jumping to an early 2-0 lead and a game against Nebraska where the Jays had only seven players. The team got its lone win against Dordt College on the last weekend of the season, but it was a game against Dordt the following night that Noel thinks was a fitting end to the season.
Noel went down awkwardly on his left ankle early, he felt a pop and knew he had hurt it badly. However, Noel was Creighton’s only goalie and tried to play through the pain.
“I never felt anything quite like it,” he said. “I tried to go on, but felt this excruciating pain going through my leg. I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
After the Jays suited up one of the referee’s young sons to skate in Noel’s place, Dordt abruptly left the arena following the second period, feeling disrespected that Creighton would put an unauthorized player in net. The other team didn’t know that this was the only player the Jays had.
“We only had 10 players,” Noel said. “I was the only goalie. There was nothing else we could do.”
After a disappointing 2011, Noel sat down with Inserra. They pondered the future of the team and how to ensure that no season would be like that one.
“We reached out to a lot of incoming freshmen, drafted up welcome letters, just trying to build something that we could make into a tangible team that people know about,” Noel said.
The offseason efforts were the jump-start the Jays needed. They now have 18 players going into the 2012 season, including three goalies.
Another way the Jays added life to their program was by moving into Ralston Arena. Thompson is back as coach and was instrumental in the process of getting the Jays into their new home.
Creighton will play most of its games after Lancer games — the arena’s other hockey tenant. Admission to Bluejay games is free.
After two seasons of good times and even more bad times, Noel thinks the team now has what it needs to be successful.
It also has an opportunity to cross an item off of his and other teammates’ bucket list.
“What is every hockey player’s lifelong dream? To play an outdoor game, and a meaningful outdoor game,” Noel said. “That’s where the roots of hockey are and to be able to do that would be very fulfilling as a member of this team.”