The Lindenwood University men’s hockey team was in the process of capturing its fourth American Collegiate Hockey Association championship last March when the team’s coach, former Blues defenseman Rick Zombo, received an early morning phone call from university president Dr. John R. Porter.
“We don’t talk a whole lot; I thought I was in some kind of trouble,” Zombo joked. “Instead, he called me to tell me that the move to NCAA Division I was going to include our program. At that point, my focus was on the national tournament, so I left the scheduling to my staff, and in something like nine days, they put together an incredible schedule with 30 games against some of the best teams in the country. What we managed to accomplish, it was pretty remarkable.”
The Lions, who beat defending ACHA champion University of Central Oklahoma 8-3 for the title in March at the Centene Community Ice Center in Maryland Heights, capped a 22-3 season as Zombo was named ACHA Division I coach of the year.
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The Lions’ upcoming NCAA schedule, which will include just four home games, will kick off Oct. 1-2 at the University of Minnesota, which lost in last year’s NCAA Frozen Four semifinals. Lindenwood is also slated to play at NCAA semifinalist Michigan on Oct. 7-8, at defending NCAA champion University of Denver on Dec. 16-17 and at the University of North Dakota on Jan. 6-7.
In the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine final rankings after last season, Denver was ranked No. 1, while Michigan (No. 3), Minnesota (No. 4) and North Dakota (No. 9) also earned top-10 rankings.
Lindenwood will play just two series at home — hosting the Air Force Academy on Oct. 14-15 and Stonehill College, of Easton, Massachusetts, on Feb. 10-11.
“It’s a matter of building this year and getting the ball rolling,” said Zombo, who earned an NCAA title during his three seasons as a player at North Dakota and went on to play 12 seasons as an NHL defenseman with the Red Wings, Blues and Bruins. “If all goes well, we’ll try to schedule at least 15 home games next year. We’re building a program for the long haul, and we’re definitely looking forward to the challenge ahead.
“As a coach, you’re judged by wins and losses, but it’s also about development and the maturation of the players you’re working with.”
Lindenwood, which has had a women’s Division I program since the 2011-12 season, becomes the 63rd school to field a men’s team at the NCAA Division I level. The St. Louis area hasn’t had Division I men’s hockey since St. Louis University discontinued its program in 1979.
Lindenwood will team with the St. Louis Sports Commission to host an NCAA Division I men’s hockey regional at Centene Community Ice Center in 2024 and the NCAA Division I Frozen Four at Enterprise Center downtown in 2025.
“The response we’ve gotten to this point has been incredible,” Zombo said. “At Centene, we share training facilities with the Blues, and they’ve been nothing but supportive of us. And the same is true of the Blues alumni. Our school and the administration are behind us completely, too. Last year, we set the tone with a very strong group of freshmen leaders, and we’re building on that with more top guys, including some transfers.
“We start practicing this week, and I’m excited to start putting things together on the ice. I’m sure we’ll have some adversity, some bumps in the road, but I’m excited to get to know my players and for our staff to start putting together our hockey team.”
Key returning players for the Lions include forwards Andy Willis (CBC), Kyle Jeffers and Ryan Finnegan, defenseman Caleb Price and goaltender Trent Burnham. Key newcomers include a pair of 6-foot-6 defensemen in Kieran Ruscheinski, who was selected in the seventh round of the 2019 NHL draft by the Montreal Canadiens, and St. Louisan Jack Anderson (Oakville) as well as talented forwards Max Neill and Drew Kuzma.
“We have good size, and we hope to develop into a team that’s difficult to play against,” Zombo said. “We want to be a team that attacks and that forces our opponents’ better players to defend. We know that we have some work to do, but I really like this group’s potential.”