When Zack Bochenek was 10 years old, his father introduced him to the sport of hockey. Or, in his own words, his father “pushed him” into it.
Bochenek is a native of Oswego, Illinois, where hockey flourishes. His hometown is where he found why he cares so much about hockey. It’s the speed and pace of the sport. In hockey, he has to stay busy.
“I’ve always been the kind of person where I have to be doing something,” Bochenek said. “I don’t really enjoy downtime a lot.”
It’s good that Bochenek doesn’t enjoy downtime too much. He doesn’t often get it. He’s a club sport athlete who’s still carrying the passion for hockey with him, even if that means sacrificing his time in college on a sport where he can’t receive a scholarship.
For an athlete on a varsity sport, the opportunity to receive an athletic scholarship helps make the sacrifice worth it. But for a club sport athlete, the sacrifices are worth it in other ways.
Club sports are different from varsity sports because they don’t receive full funding from the universities. If a club sport is to exist, the coaches and players must try to find sponsors or sell tickets and merchandise to afford travel, equipment, and a place to play the games. Players aren’t involved in club sports for the pageantry or prerogative.
The Georgia Ice Dawgs are one of the University of Georgia’s club teams. Their season lasts from September to February, and their home games take place at Akins Ford Arena in The Classic Center. At the start of the season, the Ice Dawgs don’t even have a rink to practice on. They have to resort to the local YMCA fields.
“It’s not ideal,” senior Austin Krusko said. “But it is something that we have to deal with as a club sport. Usually, the rink goes up in October and will stay up the rest of the year, so that’s a great advantage for us because we get to practice [at The Classic Center].”
Although players are quick to mention they don’t have to spend as much time on their sport as varsity athletes, playing on a club team is still a large commitment.
“There are still those tough moments you have in college when you have a big exam that you have to study for,” Bochenek said. “A lot of late nights and all-nighters that you have to pull. But at the end of the day, it just comes down to the passion and the drive that I have for the sport.”
For many players like Krusko and Bochenek, it’s about playing the sport they’ve cared about for as long as they remember. There’s an understanding that this is likely the last chance for them to keep playing.
For many in the Athens community, the Ice Dawgs are more than just a club team, and the players certainly notice.
“It gives us a little sense of pride,” Bochenek said. “Knowing that our efforts on the ice and all the work we put in off the ice… [It] really pays off and means a lot to [many] people. Even little kids that are standing there asking for a fist bump. That’s the kind of stuff that drives me and a lot of the guys on our team to keep playing and keep growing the program in the right direction.”
Unlike some of the varsity athletes, they don’t have thousands of followers on social media accounts. Most club athletes go unnoticed.
The same rewards aren't there, but they enjoy it while they still can. It’s worth the sacrifice.