Mark Coletta believes a self-funded SFU Red Leafs men’s hockey team could be contenders in NCAA Div. I within five seasons.
The next step to taking a crack at that: getting SFU to start a Varsity program.
Coletta, 47, has been head coach of the SFU club team since 2008. They play a regular season schedule against other university club squads in the B.C. Intercollegiate Hockey League, and Coletta’s been adding on NCAA exhibition games for several seasons now, with hopes of one day parlaying the information gathered and the contacts gained into being added as a full-fledged member of the SFU’s athletic program.
This season feels like they are going out of their way to get noticed. SFU provided the opposition in the home opener last month of the University of Michigan Wolverines, the alma mater of current Vancouver Canucks captain Quinn Hughes, among others. SFU dropped an 8-1 decision in Ann Arbor, Mich., to a Wolverines squad that featured nine NHL draft picks and was ranked No. 6 in the NCAA last week.
The Red Leafs were in Colorado Springs, Colo., last weekend and fell 6-3 to the Colorado College Tigers. Other games of note on their schedule include a Jan. 5-6 doubleheader on the road against the Boston University Terriers and the Boston College Eagles. Boston University was No. 1 in last week’s NCAA poll, Boston College was No. 4.
SFU took its various Varsity programs to NCAA Div. II in 2010, moving from the U Sports Canada West Conference, where they played regional rivals like the UBC Thunderbirds. Since there’s no national championship tournament in Div. II men’s hockey, they are eligible to have a Div. I team.
“Just to be coaching in those kind of games and those kind of environments makes me want to be at that level full time even more,” Coletta said of the trips to Michigan and Colorado College. “When you see that level, it’s a motivating factor.”
Coletta believes that SFU could compete in that five-year span in Div. I in large part because of the talent pool in the province. The 17-team Junior A B.C. Hockey League is the top NCAA feeder league in Canada. It listed 170 NCAA commitments on its teams currently on its website as of Thursday afternoon.
“We continue to export talent when we could be keeping it here,” Coletta said. “SFU is the only school with NCAA designation in Canada and we don’t have a hockey team? It’s an easy decision in my mind.”
Then athletic director Theresa Hanson said back in April 2016 that SFU was interested in having a Div. I hockey team and commissioned an Atlanta, Ga., company Collegiate Consulting to look into what a program might cost. They put together a 92-page report by January 2017, and it had an operating budget coming in at $1.5 million US.
Coletta believes that his group can run the team for between $850,000 to $1 million per season at the Div. I level. He also says that they can come up with that money without any school funding.
“Make no mistake — we’re not looking to take money from one of the other programs. We don’t want somebody else’s piece of the pie,” said Coletta. “We’ve always been self-funded and that will continue to be our goal.
“I’m 100-per-cent confident at the Div. I hockey level that SFU would attract the local business community to help support us. I’m 100-per-cent confident we could make this work in terms of the budget.”
There is massive competition for the consumer dollar in the hockey space in the Lower Mainland, with the AHL’s Abbotsford Canucks, WHL’s Vancouver Giants and various Junior A teams all vying for whatever doesn’t go the NHL’s Canucks. Coletta doesn’t dispute that. He points to the NCAA’s limited schedule — Michigan has 19 home games slated for this season, for instance — and the fact that all the games are on weekends as difference makers.
SFU hockey plays out of Bill Copeland Arena in Burnaby.
“How hard would it be to sell NCAA hockey here for seven or eight weekends? That’s what we’re talking about probably to start,” Coletta said. “You’re not looking to fill the place for 30 nights. You’re not looking to sell tickets on some random Tuesday night in the middle of the winter.”
The biggest stumbling block for Coletta and Co. is that SFU has much to sort out before they get to thinking about anything like adding a hockey team.
SFU is without an athletic director. Hanson and the school agreed to part ways in August.
The school is also deciding the fate of its football program. It’s currently in limbo. The school had commissioned independent adviser Bob Copeland to look into “options and search for a sustainable way forward,” after alumni and other members of the football community had complained vehemently when it was announced in April that the team was being shut down effectively immediately. That came only days after spring practice to prepare for the 2023 season.
The program, which dates back to 1965, has produced several CFL stars, but it’s struggled since moving to NCAA Div. II, including going 4-62 over the past seven seasons.
Copeland’s 136-page report came out last month and it was critical of the entire athletic department, including pointing out that one staff member told him that “athletic department morale is at an all-time low.”
Copeland wrote that “there is not a clear, unencumbered path for the reinstatement of SFU football.” As well, he also wrote that prior to football’s cancellation there was a structural budget deficit in the athletic department “as high as $1.77 million that had been growing over the past several years.” He also wrote that one staff member told him that the athletic department “cannot make strategic decisions at this time. We are handcuffed by the budget.”
Contacted via email on Thursday, an SFU spokesperson had no update on the football decision or the search for a new athletic director.