From one win, to one win away; the story of Miami Club Hockey’s miraculous turnaround

UM Club Ice Hockey players celebrate a goal. Photo credit: Ashley Baumgard

Ashley Freedland also contributed to this report.

The University of Miami ice hockey team knew from the first day of tryouts, the first practice and the first game that this season was going to be different.

The team opened the year with a tough test against the University of Central Florida (UCF), a team it had lost to by 10 goals in the season finale just seven months prior. To both teams’ surprise, the ’Canes were able to shock the UCF Knights 8-5 in an opening road win.

“We went out there, having never played together. We’d just had one practice, and we were able to pull it out against a [Division II] team, and they were so shocked, so shocked,” senior assistant captain Max Mencimer said. “The last game they beat us like 10-0 so they were not expecting that at all, and honestly, I wasn’t either, but it was sick, it was awesome.”

This unexpected victory was a catalyst for a team that is about to play as the number one seed in the Division III Nationals tournament over spring break. This was a team that only won a single game last season and couldn’t even get half of its players to show up to practice or games.

Two weekends ago, the team was able to win all three of their playoff games including a shutout of rival Florida Southern. The team had already locked up the number one seed for the playoffs, but the playoff dominance only fueled their confidence heading into nationals.

The Hurricanes had no consistent practice schedules, a sporadic coaching cycle, and a commute of almost an hour to practices during the week. Luckily, for this year’s squad, the group of leaders love hockey and wanted nothing more than to turn the team around in their senior season, and that’s just what they did.

“Our seniors and our captains really pushed kids to be accountable,” sophomore defenseman Owen Gupta said. “Communication was huge, to not skip practice just because you feel like it, and saying, ‘Let’s get people here and let’s work hard.’ Everybody on the team loves the sport, but last year did not feel the same; them getting that love back really pushed all of us to work harder.”

The commitment is felt on and off the ice. This is not just a group of hockey players at Miami; this is a group of friends.

“We’re a pretty close team, probably the closest team I’ve been on in my life,” Gupta said.

That sentiment is felt all over the roster. For senior forward Billy Cincotta, who has been through it all over his four years at UM, this team is special.

“For me, this is more than a team,” Cincotta said. “I’ve never felt better about a group of guys than this year, it’s nice that we’re all super close; that’s not something we had in the past to have that this year has been awesome.”

The buy-in for this group started at the top, and with the work the seniors have put into making this group more than just a hockey team, the guys have all seen that work play out on the ice.

“I feel like our team just committed to put the work in and to be together, and this year our team is so close,” Mencimer said. “I’ve been on a team for three years. Last year, it was kind of tough to even go to hockey ’cause we always knew that we might get pumped. This year has just brought all of us so close. It’s been the best thing.”

This new sense of comradery among the players helped fuel them to the most successful season in Miami hockey history. This team was 16-4 in the regular season, 3-0 in the postseason, and will enter the championship tournament as the number one seed.

“Our coaches are focused on having a good locker room and making sure all the team is together as one, and there’s no issues on the bench or anything like that,” freshman forward Brenden Moore said. “And I think it’s worked out well for us because it’s helped us get along as a team and perform well on the ice because we’re not fighting each other off the ice.”

While this newfound committed culture is all Moore knows, it was not always that way.

It takes a hefty amount of dedication to get a group of college students to play puck late at night in Kendall, a 45-minute drive away. Even when players are not playing, they come to support the team.

“In previous years if Tom said to someone, ‘Hey you’re not playing today’, that person was not showing up,” senior goalie Ethan Gany said. “There’s not a chance in hell that a person who was not playing would take their Friday or Saturday to come to support the team, it was just not going to happen. This year we’ve constantly had two to three scratched players come to the game and sit on the bench and help out, that’s a huge difference.”

The team has dealt with destructive coaches in the past, but head coach Tom Immello brings a renewed heart and soul to the club. He flies in from New York every weekend for the games, ensuring the team is ready for action before they hit the ice.

“He just cares so much about our team, and it means the absolute world to all of us. He flies down from New York every single weekend for us. And he does so much that none of us see. He cares so much, and all he wants is for us to have fun and for us to have an opportunity to play hockey,” Mencimer said.

Immello’s passion for the team resonates with each player, bringing them together and pushing them toward success.

“We wouldn’t be playing hockey without Tom,” Cincotta said.

Immello brings players together and creates a sense of community on the ice.

“Before the season started, I’d say it started with Tom and our leadership. The biggest difference was people leading by example, seeing them commit to making UM hockey fun and good again,” Gany said.

Going from a losing record to the road to nationals depended on more than simply skill but passion and leadership. The team was in desperation for a role model, and Immello filled that void.

“He cares so much, and all he wants is for us to have fun and for us to have an opportunity to play hockey. And the more I’ve played on this team, and now that I’m on the e-board, now that I’m assistant captain, Tom and I have gotten really close. And he’s just such a good guy. I don’t have enough good things to say about that man,” Mencimer said.

This is Immello’s second time coaching the team. He coached the team when his son played on it many years ago and has now returned to the club simply because he cares. His return brought life to the team again. He isn’t just a coach to the players; he is a role model and inspiration to them.

Immello works alongside Griffin James, a graduate student, who advises the players on the ice during practices and gets them game-time ready.

The investment that the seniors, the coaches, and all the players have put into this team has let the seniors leave their mark on the program that they love.

“I was in a really odd position, I couldn’t try out due to an injury,” Gany said. “Tom was telling me that I was going to be on a different team, he was trying to get me some games and I just told him ‘Listen, I appreciate the offer, but I’m not going to do that.’ I’d been on the team for three years, and I was the only goalie on a lot of those road trips, and I told him ‘I don’t care if I’m not the starter,’ I just want to see through what I started here.”

These seniors have a tremendous passion for the game of hockey, and to be able to ride out their last season like this has been nothing short of a dream for them.

“My favorite thing to do in the world is play hockey,” Cincotta said. “And to see where we’re at now is just mind-boggling.”