Finding the perfect fit: An inside look at Cyclone Hockey recruiting

Head Coach and General Manager Jason Fairman and team watch as Cyclone Hockey takes on the Ohio Bobcats. Iowa State lost both games.

Mary Rominger

The elite and top-tier experience that the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) member Cyclone Hockey gives its athletes is one of many reasons why the team has so much success with its recruiting process.

Every player on the Division I roster was specifically recruited to play for the organization.

In fact, the busiest recruiting time of the year for the coaching staff comes after its seven-month season ends and the coaching staff hits the road to finalize its next recruiting class.

The coaches’ mission goes beyond finding student-athletes who just possess skill, talent and strength, but players who also show quality character.

“Most of the time, if [players] wear a letter, it means that he has been recognized as a leader on his team,” general manager and coach Jason Fairman said. “Generally a ‘C’ signifies that there is something about him and that his teammates view him as a leader.”

“Also, if a prospect demonstrates a high compete level, we feel like we can develop him to play our type of game.”

Character goes a long way in order to maintain the foundation that Fairman has built his team on. With that, he pays attention to the details that could potentially show up later in a player’s game — like how a player acts toward referees or just the body language they exude on the ice and during the recruiting process.

“I eliminated a recruit once for talking during the national anthem,” Fairman said. “I went out to look at him and saw him talking during the national anthem and said nope. A lot of little things. You do something long enough and you get a sense of what you might be getting. Of course you can be wrong.”

Cyclone Hockey, one of 59 Division I teams in the ACHA, works endless hours to hold its organization to the same standards as a NCAA Division I hockey program.

The recruitment process, in most cases, begins with initial scouting at showcases like the annual events in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Las Vegas, Nevada; Minnesota; and local junior hockey teams.

“When coaches go to these showcases, we are in the rink for about 12 to 15 hours straight,” Fairman said. “When we go to the [Schwan Super Rink] in Blaine, [Minnesota], and there’s eight rinks, those games start early in the morning and go until late at night.”

Unlike interstate recruiting, the unique recruits who come to play hockey at Iowa State from out of the country undergo less face-to-face evaluation until they come on their visit.

“Being all the way up in Canada, they didn’t get a chance to come see me,” said Nick Sandy, sophomore from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. “But my coaches gave the Cyclone Hockey staff a pretty good idea of what to expect of me.”

Sandy isn’t the only current international player on Division I to come play for Cyclone Hockey. He is accompanied by freshman Taylor Bowman from British Columbia, Canada, senior Eero Helanto from Finland, senior Dalton Kaake from Saskatchewan, Canada, and junior Michael Smart from Australia.

“Being a Canadian, I really wanted to come down to the [United States],” Sandy said. “That’s kind of what we all wanted to do. The schools are a lot bigger here.”

On a closer scale, only three of 29 players on the Cyclone Hockey roster are from Iowa. Anthony Song, Colton Kramer and Kody Reuter, all from Iowa, had the luxury of a more extensive evaluation. Kurt Halbach, who continued his junior hockey endeavors in Iowa, is also part of that group. 

“I played my junior hockey in Mason City, Iowa, so I was close to Ames,” Halbach said. “Coach Fairman and Coach Callaghan came up a few times to watch our team and I talked to them and they brought me down.”

Once the coaching staff has its eye on a potential recruit, it becomes a matter of drawing them to commit to the Cyclone Hockey team.

Most of the team, if not all, would agree that the biggest initial spotlight that attracted them to Iowa State was the campus and the level of education in one of the top research universities in the country.

A campus that Sandy said he “fell in love” with.

Then, the process extends further to attracting them to, specifically, the Cyclone Hockey team.

“[Players] want a professional experience,” Fairman said. “We’ve had players turn down scholarships at lesser known schools to come to Iowa State because of the academic reputation and top-notch, serious hockey.”

The process of recruiting and bringing prospects on a visit is similar to any other school-sanctioned sport at Iowa State.

And finally, once the potential players decide to attend Iowa State, the tryout process begins.

“We have a letter of commitment,” Fairman said. “It’s not legally binding, but it is within the ACHA [National Governing Body], so we have a letter of commitment that if recruits want to be a part of Cyclone Hockey, they sign it and it gets them into our system.”

Once the prospects are in the system, the extensive process begins that eventually leads up to the final tryout.

The long process is done strategically by the staff in order to weed out any players who aren’t ready to dedicate the amount of time that Cyclone Hockey requires and to make sure their level of skill is up to par with the current program.

In a nutshell, the team will individually start light workouts in April to get them ready, then an elaborate team workout program starts late May through the summer until they report to campus in August. Once preseason training is underway, the team does a combination of NHL testing evaluations to better test the athletes.

“You have guys that played junior hockey and they’re thinking, ‘Oh, it’s just club hockey,’ I’ll play,” Fairman said. “But then they get on campus and they’re like, ‘Wow, these guys are pretty good.’”

One of the things that makes hockey unique among college sports is the ultra-competitive nature for the relatively few roster spots available each year on NCAA Division I teams, and as a result, players seeking to play at the college level must spend time in the junior leagues after high school to develop their game to the collegiate standard.

The time spent in the junior leagues is a big reason why the Cyclone Hockey roster is older than the average student entering college.

“There are a lot of kids playing hockey these days, where do they go? There is no NCAA Division II hockey to speak of, there is NCAA Division I and NCAA Division III hockey. There’s just not enough places for all these kids to go,” Fairman said. “That’s why junior hockey has become so big with so many teams. These kids are all competing for limited spots on NCAA Division I programs, which makes our level of hockey better because of the limited opportunity at these Division I hockey programs.”

In rare cases, some players will join a team immediately after high school. But no player in the Cyclone Hockey lineup under Fairman has come to play for Iowa State right out of high school.

However, running the hockey team with such attention to detail has limitations within itself because the team is administered entirely by the coaching staff.

Cyclone Hockey generates the majority of its revenue from ticket sales, advertising and fundraising. Financial limitations make recruiting more challenging than it would be for a team funded by the athletic department.

The Cyclone Hockey experience is affected in a lot of areas due to finances, but it doesn’t stop the program from putting in endless hours to work hard toward its success.

The time commitment put forth by the team is a big reason why Cyclone Hockey shies away from the use of club when describing itself.

Cyclone Hockey’s season starts in August and goes until the middle of March, with a small break over Winter Break. The hours dedicated between dry land, practice and games, as well as the full-time coaching staff, is in comparable range to any NCAA Division I sport at Iowa State.

With the similar nature of NCAA Division I sports and Cyclone Hockey, conversation among outsiders has sparked regarding the possibility of Cyclone Hockey being elevated to NCAA Division I. But the extensive list of obstacles to overcome for that to happen makes the idea out of reach in the near future.

Some brief roadblocks include start-up costs for a new NCAA Division I standard facility, adjusting women’s athletics to align with Title IX, having the budget to support the added scholarships, coaching staff compensation and figuring out what conference to join because of the absence of hockey in the Big 12. 

Steve Malchow, the senior associate Iowa State athletics director, acknowledged the team’s ambitions in a recent statement after addressing the status of Cyclone Hockey becoming a sanctioned sport.

“If you look at their record of success, it is tremendous,” Malchow said. “They have found a niche to be able to recruit outstanding young student-athletes to come out here and represent Iowa State University on the club level and they’ve brought national prestige to their sport and our school.”

The most recent team to move up to the NCAA Division I level was Arizona State. The move in 2015 was a result of a $32 million donation that, among other factors, allowed the Arizona State Athletic Department to support the upgrade.

And even though Arizona State had the fortune of the donation, it still dealt with the transition to change the core of the program and elevate the roster talent to that of NCAA Division I.

ASU Hockey Director of Operations Adam Blossey said the biggest inside transition was the NCAA regulation of player concentration.

“We go a little further out of our way at the club level to save money,” Blossey said. “Where as here [at the NCAA level] we are more about giving guys their rest, making sure players are fed three meals a day either catered or not [in order meet NCAA Division I standards for student-athletes].”

Overall, the extensive recruiting system translates well onto the ice, as Cyclone Hockey recently claimed the 2017 Central States Collegiate Hockey League (CSCHL) regular season and tournament titles. 

“I think the national stage the team was on last year made the new guys ready to work, I think the recruiting class that was picked up this year is dedicated to that and definitely a lot of talent they brought in plus the other guys makes it that much better,” Sandy said. “Their skill is pushing us as well as us helping them.”