COLLEGE PLACE, Walla Walla County - Their midweek games take place in the Tri-Cities and run past midnight. They travel as far south as Eugene, Ore., and as far north as Alberta. Their expenses run as high as $1,000 a year per person.
But that's nothing for a member of the Walla Walla College WolfPack hockey club. These guys drink from the cup of life through chapped lips and chipped teeth. They breathe the scents of the world through crooked noses.
Those who attend the College Place Seventh-Day Adventist school are unlikely to find anything about hockey in their Bibles. But if you ask any team members, they'll swear the 11th Commandment reads, "Thou shalt take to the ice with thy stick at thy side."
Only two choices
Cody Erwin, a senior defenseman, grew up in Brush Prairie and spent much of his free time participating in youth hockey in Portland. When the time came to make a decision on college, Erwin searched for schools that respected the Adventist Sabbath. There were only two choices - Walla Walla College and Canadian Union College of Lacombe, Alberta.
"I was looking for a school that provided hockey that didn't conflict with our religion," he said. "This was a good opportunity to come to school and play some hockey."
The WolfPack roster includes 28 players. The team this season joined the American College Hockey Association, a national governing committee broken into four conferences across the United States. Games take place on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. The ACHA ranks teams, much in the same way The Associated Press and NCAA coaches rank football and basketball teams. At the end of the season, the top four teams in each conference are eligible for post-season play.
The ACHA requires all teams to be members for one year before being eligible for the playoffs. With a losing record in ACHA matches, WWC probably wouldn't qualify anyway.
"Next year, we'll be involved right from the get-go," WolfPack coach David Jewkes said. "Our whole season will be based on ACHA rankings."
Many regulars show up
The WolfPack also participates in an adult recreation league in the Tri-Cities. The league takes place on Tuesday nights at Tri-City Coliseum, often following Tri-City Americans matches. Most players view the rec league as a junior varsity program, although many WolfPack regulars will show up for practice. Usually, the rec league allows an opportunity for younger players to get some ice time. Body checks are not allowed, and many players even dress down without the normal equipment or shoulder pads and face masks. Such apparel is required during ACHA contests.
Goalie Jacy Nelson is one player who always comes with a full suit of protection.
"For most of the guys, the pads just get in the way," he said. "But I always wear my equipment. It wouldn't work too well if I didn't."
Nelson said he hasn't seen anyone actually suffer an injury outside of the normal scrapes and scratches. But forward Greg Kettner can attest that injuries do indeed happen.
Kettner's had his nose broken twice. He's had his two front teeth extracted via hockey puck forceps, then replaced. But Kettner prefers to keep the mask off.
"I don't have a girlfriend anyway, so my face doesn't really matter," he said.
Lest you think that members of an Adventist school play a more passive brand of hockey, check out team captain Ward Pearson. During a recent rec league game with the Tri-Cities Rockers, Pearson was the first player in the penalty box, after becoming entangled with an opponent and flinging him to the ground.
"Sometimes it gets rough, but this usually isn't too bad," Pearson said. "It stays calm most of the time. But in our ACHA matches, it's a lot more physical."
And that means the occasional fight.
The physical side
Nelson swears he's never been involved, but he's certainly been a witness. The most recent scuffles came earlier this month when the WolfPack traveled to the University of Oregon in Eugene.
"We had a couple of guys get kicked out," he said. "During the weekend games, there's usually a bigger crowd. People get pumped up and someone catches an elbow or something. Even the goalies get in fights. But that's the great thing about being a goalie. You can get in a fight, but someone else gets sent to the box."
That's the physical side of the game. There's also the financial part.
WolfPack players pay annual dues of $150 to join the team and must also purchase jerseys, which cost $80. Each player is required to provide his own equipment, which may run between $500 and $700. Ice rental for ACHA games costs about $675 a night.
Then there are the travel costs. The WolfPack's road schedule takes them to Spokane, Alberta, Eugene and Yakima.
The players even have to travel for their home games. Because there's no regulation-size ice in the Walla Walla area, the WolfPack plays all of its home games in the Tri-Cities. Since the Tri-City Americans have priority at the Tri-City Coliseum, most WolfPack games don't begun until after 10 p.m. and often run past midnight. That may not be a problem on weekends, but it can get a little hectic during the week when athletes have to get back to College Place to attend classes.
Plenty of headaches
The team receives no financial assistance from the college but tries to offset its costs through fund-raisers. The team charges admission to its ACHA games and raises money by selling merchandise on campus. It also sells advertising for a promotional calendar distributed around College Place and Walla Walla.
There's plenty of headaches, both physically and financially, that come with hockey. But to players like Kettner, it's all worth it.
Kettner began playing when he was 4. He wasn't involved with organized hockey, but when his dad brought home sticks for him and his brother, there were plenty of one-on-one duels during the winter months in Creston, British Columbia.
"We basically played on the ponds," he said. "I didn't really play for a team. But when I got here, I said, `Why not?' I don't smoke or drink, so this is my release."