Lights shut out on men’s hockey

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated on Feb. 26 at 4:55 p.m. to reflect that the four-year ban on the SRU men’s club hockey team wasn’t an extension of a proposed two-year ban. The word “appeal” was also changed to “administrative waiver” to match the language used in the report cited in this article. 

The investigation began with a phone call, an anonymous individual on the other line. It ended with the Slippery Rock University men’s club hockey team being barred until 2025.

Before giving any of his team’s side of things, senior physical activity and fitness management major and president of the club, Luke Grossman let it be known that he understood others’ obligations.

“The first thing,” Grossman said, “is that we totally acknowledge and understand that the university’s intention throughout this whole process was to keep students safe. And that was our intention, as well.”

Grossman acknowledged times are changing and that some team-building practices are no longer acceptable, but said that the team’s aim was always to be inclusive and welcoming to all members.

“We didn’t realize [those] things that we were doing were wrong,” Grossman said. “I don’t believe that anybody was ever in any danger. And I don’t believe that anybody ever felt singled out, or bullied, or hazed.”

It was August 2019 that the team was hosting its annual “Rookie Day.” A week earlier, the team held its tryouts and picked its roster, and the purpose of the festivities were to welcome new players. Grossman emphasized that the party was not a mandatory team event and mentioned that a number of the team’s freshmen didn’t attend.

“It was meant to be an opportunity for the rookies to get to know us, for them to get to know each other, and for us to have a little fun […] and celebrate the opportunity of a new season,” Grossman said.

To start the day, around 11 a.m., Grossman said the team held a “short, maybe 30-yard” freshman footrace, with a Yeti tumbler as the winner’s prize. There was a reminder beforehand, Grossman said, that it was optional. Some elected not to run without facing any repercussions.

Following the opening competition, new club members were split into two teams for a scavenger hunt, Grossman said. The objectives were all landmarks within the campus or community, such as taking a photo in front of Bob’s Subs, and items that were meant to help familiarize them with the upperclassmen.

While the new players were out, the upperclassmen stayed back and got together at the Heights to cook food for when the groups returned. The hunt, Grossman said, is a significant step in helping members of a new class get acquainted. They would be experiencing a lot of the same things over the next four years, such as living away from home and navigating college coursework and hockey.

“It was intended to be a fun day,” Grossman said. “The university saw both [the footrace and scavenger hunt] as hazing.”

Later in the night, a party was held that a draft of the report findings mentioned the company included exotic dancers.

“That portion […] should not have happened,” Grossman said. “That was something that had been a tradition in the past […] I felt at the time that that shouldn’t have happened and, in hindsight, if I had to do it over again, I would’ve been more aggressive to make sure that that didn’t occur.”

Grossman said, in his knowledge, the scavenger hunt concludes Rookie Day festivities.

“That evening wasn’t an official team activity,” he explained. “Everybody there was over 18. Everybody there had their own choice if they wanted to be there or not […] Other people, it wasn’t their scene, so they stayed home. They never received any backlash.”

Grossman also mentions that the other three members of the board—Kevin Belanger, Jamie Mauro, and John Seibert—hadn’t yet gained their spot.

Grossman touched upon the allegation that underclassmen were left to pick up pucks following practice and to fill water bottles for games and practices.

“As far as filling water bottles for games goes, the players that were scratched or not participating in that game were the ones filling [them],” Grossman said. “While it may seem like it was mostly freshmen or new club members at the beginning of the season, it’s because they hadn’t worked their way into the lineup, necessarily, yet.”

Grossman clarified that, at the conclusions of practices, there was optional free time for players to remain on the ice and further work on their game. Whoever stayed until the very end would gather pucks.

Furthermore, the team would hold a shootout to close Monday practices, with a member of the losing side having to wear a cowboy hat to a class.

It was seven months after the welcoming party that the nameless phone call was made.

An email was sent to every team member, Grossman said, telling them they were mandated to meet at the Office of Student Conduct in two hours, without giving any reason for summoning the club. Members were separated and put into individual rooms as soon as they’d arrived. Professors from the school’s Criminology and Criminal Justice Department were called on to question each member.

“That was an extremely stressful situation,” Grossman said. “They pretty much held all the power in this instance.”

The team’s head coach of four years, Dave Grimm wasn’t privy to the situation.

“It being a club sport, coaches really have no sort of interaction with the university,” Grimm said. “We’re completely left out. We rely on the student board for all the information, for all the deadlines, budgets, funds, and stuff like that.”

Through six months and an entire season following those interviews, Grossman said, the team heard nothing. Then, he received an email from Leigh Ann Gilmore, the director of the Office of Student Conduct. He was told that they’d decided on a two-year suspension of the program, with the condition that members that had been part of the team prior would be unable to contribute again.

“We saw it as a death sentence,” Grossman said. “It didn’t matter if they gave us a two-year or a ten-year suspension.”

Hockey, with its scant NCAA governing, is unlike other college sports, Grossman said. Participating in American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Div. I, Slippery Rock had been recruiting skaters across the country. The team hadn’t reached the playoffs for seven seasons, before returning in 2017. The next season, it made its conference’s title game. Under former volunteer assistant Grimm and his staff, Grossman said, the program’s ethos was beginning to shift.

Alongside both a passionate parent organization and alumni association, the program would have been on the ice for its 50th season.

“The thing that has driven the direction of this program has been the members of the program currently,” Grossman said. “We had created a new culture with this program. One that had so many positive things to offer […] We’d even improved our relationship with the university. We were working directly with the president on creating new opportunities to bring in out-of-state players and for them to have the opportunity to see how great Slippery Rock is and for them to be able to expand that recruiting web all across North America.”

When Grimm had taken the reins, one of his first orders of business was to change any hazing in the culture of the program. He’d been commended by those in the university for the improvement that was made.

“That stuff doesn’t happen overnight,” Grimm said. “It’s hard to weed out things that had been going on for, say, seven, eight, nine years.”

Grimm, who’d played for SRU when it had first joined the ACHA for the 2003-2004 campaign, returned in 2016 to help manage the team’s budget and run practices. He was happy just to be back and involved with the club, even after being gifted a cardboard box full of receipts dating as far back as six years earlier.

“We were about $6,000 in the hole, that we owed out in bills,” Grimm said. “We owed out to the Lemieux Center for ice time, we owed out to the equipment supplier we used at the time.”

The team decided on a coaching change the next season, and Grimm found a way to pay back the club’s debts. He set a priority for players to represent the university first, in the classroom or otherwise.

The club played Liberty University twice on ESPN+ last season, but it wasn’t only with skates on that it was leaving a positive impression. Grossman spoke proudly of community service efforts and charitable contributions to causes such as breast cancer awareness and men’s mental health.

“We were really on the right track to do a lot of good for the community and the university, and we had felt that stepping away for that [proposed] two years wasn’t acceptable for us,” Grossman said.

The team declined the administrative waiver, with its hearing taking place three months later. During a ten-hour Zoom call, Grossman and an advisor that the school had assigned to help sat in with both Gilmore and a hearing board. The entire hockey team and its coaches cleared their schedules for the day, waiting to be called upon as witnesses for the process.

During their tenures, Grimm and his assistant, Mike Menchyk, both SRU alumni, declined a salary for their positions.

“They just wanted to give back to the program that they had played for,” Grossman said. “They really cemented that idea of the hockey program being what draws us all to the university and wanting to give back to the university because of that.”

Grossman couldn’t see there being any more evidence brought to light during the hearing that would contribute to the thought that there was hazing present. His coaches were repeatedly thanked for giving back to the club and told how good of role models they were being by dedicating their time to the university.

“I genuinely thought throughout that process that this was all just going to go away after that,” Grossman said.

A few weeks after the hearing, the team was given word that the ban was lengthened another two years, meaning that the club sport wouldn’t be eligible to return until spring 2025.

A few weeks after the hearing, the team was given a four-year ban after declining an administrative waiver that carried a two-year suspension. This meant that the club sport wouldn’t be eligible to return until spring 2025.

“It was a really jarring and heartbreaking thing to hear,” Grossman said, rubbing his forehead in frustration. “Because this team has been a support system for each other the entire way through […] We really felt that they didn’t give us an opportunity to explain and didn’t attempt to understand where we were coming from.”

With the ruling being held that no former members could help rebuild the program, a network of proud alumni is washed away.

“I put up whatever amount of money on my own to keep things going and start going in the right direction,” Grimm said. “It’s tough to see all that progress, where they’re praising you and saying, ‘Hey, you did a great job, we like the way you’re going with this.’ […] To have that squashed over that […] was hard.”

For the program to run every year, it cost nearly $200,000. The team found a way, through efforts such as fundraisers, to make it work.

“There was a lot of student involvement,” Grimm said. “We put a lot of responsibility on the players [and] on the club members. We wanted them to take ownership.”

Prior to declining the administrative waiver, Grossman had composed an email to Gilmore detailing what kind of ruling the team was looking for. He recognized the fact that rules were put in place to keep students safe.

“We weren’t trying to say that, under their rules, we didn’t do anything wrong,” Grossman said. “We were acknowledging the fact that we broke a rule, we think that we should have some sort of punishment, but their punishment had gone too far. We had asked for a one-year suspension [and] the ability for players to continue to participate with the organization.”

Grossman also requested a probationary period of the board’s discretion, following the team’s proposed sanction, that the club could work directly with the university to become a model program moving forward. He also made a similar statement during the hearing.

He never received any comment back from Gilmore or the hearing board regarding the suggestion.

“There are a lot of clubs, and NCAA teams, that aren’t operating under these rules,” Grossman said. “I don’t think that’s any secret, that there are organizations at Slippery Rock, and all across the county at the college level, that aren’t following all of the rules to a T. There are members of every club and NCAA team that drink. There are underage players of every club and organization that drink. And these are some of the things that they use as grounds for a suspension.”

The main findings the program was suspended for, Grimm agrees, wasn’t because of hazing, rather the furnishing of alcohol to minors.

“Now, if somebody who plays football or baseball or whatever,” Grimm said. “If someone stops them and they’re charged for underage drinking, do you kill the baseball program? Do you kill the basketball program?”

Grossman circles back to whoever might have picked up the phone to chronicle the allegations, but only to stress that no member had ever expressed a feeling of being hazed.

“No members of the club ever spoke out to say that they felt hazed, or bullied, or belittled,” he said. “This call had entirely come in anonymously. It could have been an opponent that we played against.”

Grimm wishes that any complaint could have been brought to his attention.

“If somebody was uncomfortable with whatever happened, by all means, 100%, please come talk to somebody,” Grimm said. “Come see us, let us know what’s going on. From a coach’s standpoint, we weren’t aware of all the stuff that had happened.”

With no immediate future to look to for the club, Grossman glanced backward.

“I still think that the best thing that we can do is put an end cap on this program that remains a positive one,” he said.

There isn’t a period that a transfer has to sit out for in the ACHA, meaning Slippery Rock players can relocate to another school and promptly lace up their skates. For the most part, Grossman said, seniors are going to stay and finish their studies at SRU. Grimm said his phone has rung off the hook with other coaches hoping to pick up players from the program.

The upperclassmen continue to make efforts to help find younger players a new home that, Grossman hopes, is like the one they had in Slippery Rock, especially during the ongoing pandemic.

“It was the university’s goal to keep students safe and, with this decision, they effectively did the exact opposite,” Grossman said. “We needed each other right now. We needed that support system. People are struggling emotionally and mentally and having their whole worlds flipped upside down right now.”

Still, he knows players will remember their time in green and white.

“I’m proud of what we put together as a team,” Grossman said, smiling. “Nobody can take that away from us. The school suspending the team can’t take that away from us. The friendships that we have made are lifelong friendships […] I’m proud of the entire experience.”

Brendan is a senior converged journalism major serving his second year on The Rocket staff and his first semester as sports editor. Previously, he served as assistant campus life editor and assistant sports editor. After graduation, he hopes to cover sports for a newspaper or magazine.

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