Ducks on Ice

UO Hockey Players, Worlds Apart From Their Olympic Counterparts, Play for the Love of the Game

The 2013-14 UO hockey team.

There are 6,300 miles separating Eugene and Sochi, Russia, but at times the gulf between the Olympic hockey stars and the members of the University of Oregon’s hockey team feels even greater than anything that can be marked on a map.

The likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and Patrick Marleau live lives of luxury in the NHL, with endorsement deals, seven-figure salaries, and road trips that involve chartered planes and five-star hotels.

The Ducks—the University of Oregon Ducks, not the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks, that is—live markedly different lives. Instead of healthy salaries and endorsement deals, the players pay close to $2,000 each per year in dues, and instead of private jets the team rents vehicles from the university motor pool for road trips, and drives as far as 900 miles to Los Angeles and 800 miles to Salt Lake City to play.

And instead of playing for the Stanley Cup or an Olympic gold medal, the Ducks’ quest for glory in 2014 ended in Utah at the Pac-8 championships.

Glamorous, it isn’t.

Fun, however, it most definitely is.

“For the most part, if you’re going to be a pro hockey player, by the time you’re 18 you’re going to be in the high level juniors,” said UO forward and team coordinator Patrick Sgarlata. “For most of us that ship has sailed; this is just a fun way to keep playing hockey while we get an education.”

Sgarlata hails from California, a state that did not have an NHL team for the first 50 years of the NHL’s existence, but now boasts three—the LA Kings, San Jose Sharks, and Anaheim Ducks—tying New York as the state, or Canadian province, with the most teams.

“I grew up in San Jose, in the Bay Area, and right around the time I was born the Sharks were an expansion team,” Sgarlata said. “My dad got season tickets to the Sharks, and I fell in love with hockey and played my whole life.”

With family in Oregon, Sgarlata wanted to move north to attend college, and chose the University of Oregon because it offered the human physiology program he was looking for. With a hockey team already in place, Sgarlata signed on to continue playing, and in his senior year at the UO is now responsible for the day-to-day duties of the team—including organizing road trips to take on Pac-8 opponents such as USC and Utah.

The team pays $265 per hour for use of the rink at the Rink Exchange, and practices on the ice on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, before playing on Fridays and Saturdays. This year, the team went 11-9 overall and 5-6 in Pac-8 play, and split the four I-5 Cup games against rivals the University of Washington, before ultimately losing the cup in a shootout after the final game.

The Ducks earned the No. 3 overall seed in the Pac-8 tournament in Salt Lake City, and while they avoided undefeated host school and No. 5-ranked the University of Utah in the draw, they did get paired with No. 15 Arizona State University.

The Ducks took out UCLA 5-2 in their first game, but dropped their second, 5-1, to the Sun Devils. Arizona State then went on to win the conference tournament, defeating the Utes 6-5 in five overtimes.

Four days after the Pac-8 championships wrapped up, ending the season for Sgarlata and his teammates, their idols—Team Canada and San Jose Sharks forward Marleau is Sgarlata’s favorite player—dropped the puck in Sochi for the Winter Olympics.

“I think in 2010 I watched every game the USA played, for sure, and I also watched every game Canada played,” Sgarlata said. “It’s hard to bet against Canada [in 2014], they’re just so good. But they play Olympic hockey on a bigger sheet of ice, so that gives an advantage to European teams. But the USA is looking good too; we’ll see if they can get another medal.”

Ovechkin, Crosby, Marleau, and the rest of the Olympians are staying in the athletes’ village, with expansive views of the Black Sea. Sgarlata and his the rest of his teammates returned to the University of Oregon—where the snow is deeper and the temperatures are lower than in the resort the Olympians are calling home this month.

The gulf between the Olympic hockey stars and the members of the University of Oregon’s hockey team feels even greater than anything that can be marked on a map—but don’t mistake a lack of glamor for a lack of fun.