The Long Beach State hockey club quietly returned from their COVID-19 absence in the midst of a culture change.
Their 2021 season in the American Collegiate Hockey Association was cut short halfway through after they had returned from the initial shutdowns. It was also the first season with new head coach Eric Raimondo at the helm.
Raimondo is a familiar face in the LBSU hockey scene, playing for the club between 2002-2005 before first joining the coaching staff as an assistant in 2006 and then leading the team between 2007-2009. He would leave the team to coach youth hockey for almost 10 years before returning as an assistant three seasons ago.
“When I came into the league as a player, the ACHA didn’t even exist; it was the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, which was kind of ragtag,” Raimondo said. “Now it’s very organized. The divisions are coming along.”
Unlike most athletic programs at The Beach, the hockey club isn’t affiliated with the athletics department and doesn’t play in the NCAA. They are instead just a club who has to secure funding for ice time, uniforms, travel and anything else a competitive team would need.
Each and every player pays dues; this season they were about $2,500 which helps ensure the team can practice and get primetime slots for their night games at Lakewood Ice.
They do benefit, however, from being one of the most well funded clubs on campus; with both Raimondo and team captain and club president Nico Santoro believing themselves to be.
The relationship between the team and the LBSU club sports associate director Brian Coriaty has proven pivotal. The hockey club was the first team back from COVID-19 thanks in part to Santoro and Coriaty’s relationship.
“We have a pretty tight relationship, he’s really helped us out and made sure we’ve been able to play,” Santoro said.
It’s a relationship that Santoro describes as love-hate, only because of the expense related to running a hockey team.
“They love our sport, they love our team, they know how motivated we are to have a team, but then they have to fork out some money,” Santoro said.
With each player paying to be there, it’s been important to make sure that the team’s culture, still saw the team looking to be competitive as they learn to play the game the right way; something Raimondo and Santoro were both eager to do.
This season, being his first full opportunity to once again coach The Beach, Raimondo has already begun to teach the team some new ideals.
“I put a lot of emphasis on these guys and they’ve all bought into our culture,” he said. “Basically it’s just work hard, we’re not here to showboat, we’re not here to mouth off, we’re respectful but we play hard, and nose to the grindstone.”
The philosophy has worked with the team made up of a lot of younger guys, getting off to a strong start to the season (6-4-1), and currently riding a three game win streak.
“I think the team has shifted well to their understanding of what we are trying to do with the program and making sure that it is not going to just go down the drain,” Santoro said.
In their two most recent contests, The Beach came from behind to beat Cal State Northridge after trailing 3-0, before winning in overtime 4-3. The team also outlasted rival Cal State Fullerton 1-0 on Saturday night.
The game against Fullerton was a good example of where the team is currently at. It was a chippy contest that saw the Tritons enter the penalty box nine times. There were plenty of after-the-whistle scrums, but The Beach did well to avoid retaliating, though they did commit five penalties of their own.
Freed was playing against his brother on this occasion, a moment that coach Raimondo chose to highlight, as the siblings opposed each other on the games opening faceoff.
“It was cool to get the first one of the season, kind of get the monkey off my back. But I truly appreciated getting to play against my brother,” Freed said. “It will be the one and only time that will ever happen.”
Those little moments are something that appear bigger at this level of hockey. None of the players really know if each season is their last time suiting up in a competitive environment. Maybe they move onto coaching after, or they just move on entirely, but for now they play for The Beach and they are proud of it.
“I haven’t played hockey for the past five years now ever since high school, but I always wanted to come back and play college hockey,” Freed said. “It’s been pretty cool to come back and be a part of the team. I love Long Beach and they are all my brothers.”