Hockey purists will likely say that hockey has no business being in California. Perhaps that is a bit harsh but the sentiment does remain accurate for some. However, over the last decade-plus, the sport has made significant strides on the west coast and today, hockey is as strong as ever in the Golden State, and that is no more evident than in the American Collegiate Hockey Association.
The Cal State Fullerton Titans are a special breed. Separate from the bright lights from the NCAA, Titan players have not suited up for the school for the sake of achieving fame and fortune. Instead, they don the Titans jersey to continue the passion for hockey that has instilled them since they were young boys. This blue-collar work ethic of this special group is what brings the fans out, to identify with their own, to live vicariously through their players for 60 minutes a night. For the fans, the feeling to be associated with this team is wonderful. For the players, the feeling is even greater.
This is the story of CSUF Titans.
I recently caught up with a few of the Titans’ finest, both past and present, where we discussed what it is like to play for their school, how it feels to come to the rink and the overall growing popularity.
Recently-graduated defenseman Trevor Nielsen gave us his feelings on being part of this program.
“It felt great to be a part of ACHA hockey especially for CSUF,” Nielsen said. “ACHA gave me the opportunity fulfill my dream of playing competitive College hockey for a great organization.”
I then asked Nielsen what changes he noticed in the growth of popularity in the ACHA.
“I have seen a continuity of popularity through ACHA,” Nielsen continued. “Seeing some teams grow and others decline, while CSUF continued its strong commitment to the school, organization and to each other within the club.
Nielsen also touched on the differences between going to the rink now as opposed to when he first started playing for CSUF.
“When I started, I felt nervous and nostalgic,” he noted. “I was nervous to start playing with a new team because each team becomes a family and you begin as the outsider. Though I was nervous, the feeling I had once I started and still have is the feeling of belonging. I feel at home. Hockey is my life and I wouldn’t ever want it any other way.”
Another recent CSUF graduate, assistant captain Griffin Cortes, had nothing but great things to say about his time in the ACHA while pointing out the organization’s surge in popularity.
“Well, it feels great, quite frankly,” Cortes emphasized. “Me knowing a lot of the kids that had been playing for the local schools in the ACHA league, I have been able to see the growth and development of this league starting from a sort of an unknown stage to one that draws fans and a lot of attention around the local hockey world. Of course now my teammates and I are being able to compete on big stages in front of fans while still being able to work and go to school.
“I have been attending these games long before I have ever gotten to play in them and it has been kind of shocking how fast this has gone from something that very few people know about to something that has gained a lot of recognition. Especially on most campuses that have other NCAA sports to attend, we’re gaining notoriety amongst the school. I’ve even been noticed by strangers with a, “Hey, aren’t you on the hockey team?”, and that has been really cool. We are also seeing more and more teams joining into all of the divisions in the ACHA which is not only furthering the reach of the league but also allowing players of all levels to get a chance to play some more hockey, which, aren’t we all trying to do? Play a little more hockey?”
Cortes then discussed what it was like to start his career with the CSUF Titans.
“When I joined two years ago, I knew most of the players on the team going into my first season with CSUF which always helps when you’re joining a new club,” Cortes said. “If anything, just my role within the club has switched. When I first came I was just one of the faces fighting for a spot. I came, trained hard, got on the ice, went home and slept; it was all business. As the year progressed, I found my role as a first line playmaker because that was what my team needed out of me.
“Me having played for so many years, I wasn’t treated like a ‘noob’ or a ‘rookie’. I was treated like a hockey player there to play with the guys sitting next to me. As this year came in I took on a bigger role being the team treasurer and assistant captain which is something I’m extremely honored to be. Losing a lot of vets last year I knew I needed to step up and be a leader this year and that’s what I’ve done. But as far as the feeling, nothings changed. You come into the building ready to work your ass off for the guy next to you, and the logo on the front of that sweater. Simple as that.”
The enthusiasm of playing for CSUF was especially evident with Ethan Chapluk, who is now a junior. When I asked him how it was like to be a part of something so special, the native of Placentia, California, could barely contain his excitement.
“For me it is a lifelong dream come to fruition in a much more realistic and practical setting,” Chapluk glowed. “Every kid who grows up playing the sport wants to play in the NCAA, then go to the NHL. Obviously, for 99% of us, that will never be a reality, but the silver lining is the ACHA. I am able to come to the rink four times a week, put on my skates and battle for my school week-in and week-out while still building a future besides hockey for myself. As our league has grown, it feels more like the NCAA as is. We have the privilege of playing for a conference championship every spring (assuming we qualify) and if earned, there is even a national title to play for. This is some of the most fun hockey I have played in my life and to be a part of the growth of college hockey in California is an honor.”
Chapluk continued, describing a growth in popularity in the ACHA.
“It is my first season playing with the Titans, but I have still noticed a growth in the popularity. I used to go watch USC and UCLA play in their rivalry game when I was 10 years old. There would be maybe 50 or so people there each time at best, for the biggest rivalry arguably in California sports. So imagine my surprise when I suit up for the season opener this year, against USC in their barn, and I’m greeted by over 300 fans, most of whom were CSUF fans. It was unbelievable and I will never forget it.”
As far as the feeling of going to the rink goes, Chapluk admitted that there has been a big difference from when he first started playing for the Titans to now.
“It has a different feeling to it, no doubt,” the left-winger noted. “Playing club hockey all my life, it was only parents in the stands and you were just playing for yourselves and the club. Now having a school to represent and be proud of, it has really sparked my drive to get better and grow as a player. This is the best hockey I have ever been playing and I still don’t feel I have hit my stride to the fullest. With the season wrapping up, rather than sinking into taking a break, I just want to get better and be the best on ice representation of Cal State Fullerton that I can be. The ACHA is the most rewarding hockey experience I will likely ever get and I can’t imagine not representing the Titans over the next few seasons.”
Listening to Chapluk and his teammates was a throwback to this writer’s early days of playing hockey in the driveway, on the street or on the frozen pond during Eastern Ontario’s harsh winters. It was a throwback to the days where there was no room to worry about the little — or big — things in life but to go out and have fun by doing what we love.
The Cal State Fullerton Titans are inspiration, a reminder that hockey should not always be about business but about bringing out the happy-go-lucky children in all of us, to instill that confidence that has the ability to momentarily disappear in our adult lives. How Chapluk and company conduct themselves on and off the ice is, in the simplest sense, a breath of fresh air — and that is something that should never be taken for granted.
So, for those of you in southern California, do be sure to check out an ACHA game whether it’s CSUF or whoever. You will be sure to find that you will get your money and time’s worth for hockey that is not only of high quality but participants that fully appreciate said quality in hockey, in having fun and, most of all, in life.