By Josh Apple, C2M Contributor

For the first time in school history, the George Mason University club ice hockey team finished .500 in the Blue Ridge Hockey Conference, with a record of 7-7.

The team has been skating below the radar at Mason primarily because of the struggles it has faced in the past.

Although the team has been in existence for about a decade, victories have been few and far between until the 2009-10 squad took to the ice.

“It’s all about commitment and chemistry,” said 23-year-old graduate student Erik Gibbons. “Our previous coach had no ability to keep our lines together for more than a couple games. It really was terrible because we couldn’t develop any chemistry.”

Gibbons has been on the team for four years and has witnessed it develop from struggling for survival to having a bright future and a new coaching staff.

Gibbons is the only player not returning to the team next year, and the interest continues to grow. Each year, more and more players come to tryouts and want to be a part of the building process.

“My favorite memory was this past season because I was actually going into games without expecting to lose,” said Gibbons. “I knew we had a chance to win every game.”

Although Gibbons’ career at Mason has come to its end, the team is loaded with returning veteran players.

Matt McVay, a 22-year-old fourth-year student, will be returning to the team for one more season.

McVay is staying in school for five years because he is double majoring in sport management and business management.

Not only is he the captain and president of the squad, he is the team’s leader in statistics as well.

“If someone isn’t doing something right, I’m the first one to let them know and to help,” said McVay. “I’m usually hard on myself too,
though. But I’m the first to give someone props if they do something well.”

McVay began playing competitive ice hockey when he was 16 and has not slowed down since.

McVay played for the Virginia Express B Team until he was 20, and then began his Mason career. Next year will be his third year with the Patriots.

“This team is one of the most fun teams I’ve been on,” said McVay. “We’re all good friends and we’re starting to learn everyone’s tendencies on and off the ice, which just makes it lots of fun.”

Chris Shrieves, 22, is another returning veteran player for the Patriots. He played for Christopher Newport University before transferring to Mason. As a government and international politics major, the Northern Virginia area drew him in.

“These guys have made me feel a lot closer to Mason,” said Shrieves. “It’s good to know people right away when you transfer, and we are all pretty close.”

Shrieves has one year left of hockey eligibility. He has just one goal left: to win the Blue Ridge Conference Championship.

“I’m really proud of everyone’s effort this year,” said Shrieves. “We all knew we could win and tried to win. We just missed the playoffs but at least came close, and it’s something we can build on.”

Alex Spitzel, a 22-year-old senior and sport management major, will also be playing with the team for one more season.

Spitzel is the starting goalie for both the ice hockey and the roller hockey teams at Mason. Along with McVay, Spitzel plays a leading role for the squad on and off the ice.

“I consider myself a leader, and I pretty much am one,” said Spitzel. “As the general manager, I pretty much do everything for the team, along with the president and coach. For example, I manage the budget, schedule games, and make sure the team is organized and gets to where [it needs] to go.”

Spitzel foresees success both next year and in the years to come. He has seen the talent level and the determination to win rise exponentially since he began playing for the Patriots.

Like Gibbons, he believes the primary change has been the increased chemistry among the players and coaches.

“We can be described in one word: brotherhood,” said Spitzel. “We are a family, on and off the ice. I will miss that the most when I’m gone.”
After next year, McVay, Shrieves and Spitzel will all have completed their collegiate ice hockey careers. They will be leaving behind a legacy of building the program into a playoff-caliber team.

“I think if we get some more leadership in place after I leave, we will be one of the better teams in the league,” said McVay.

Chris Christopher, a 20-year-old sophomore, has been a solid defensive contributor for the Patriots in his two years with the team.

Christopher received a concussion in his very first game his freshman year against Roanoke College, permanently earning him the nickname “Lights Out” and making him one of the favorites of the upper classmen.

“As crazy as the older guys are, they are really mature in terms of hockey and set a good example for the younger players,” said Christopher.

Christopher expects to make it to the playoffs for the final two years of his career. He also anticipates taking on a leadership role once the veterans graduate.

“It’s going to happen; I’m going to be a leader,” said Christopher. “I just need to go beyond what’s asked of me. I’m going to practice all summer and play as much as I can to improve my game.”

If Christopher and the other new arrivals can step up and fill the shoes of Gibbons, McVay, Shrieves, Spitzel and the remaining upper classmen upon their departures, the future is bright.

Gibbons remembers multiple games from his first two seasons in which the team traveled with just six players.

It is difficult for him to be optimistic, but even he feels there is a strong chance for success in the near future.

“There [are] two paths this team could take,” said Gibbons. “It could default because Northern Virginia isn’t good at liking hockey unless teams are doing well, or it could keep trending up and garnering interest as more and more players try out for the team. I’m really hoping and thinking it’s the second one.”

The players understand they need to make a few playoff runs before they can become a well-known entity.

However, if they do in fact continue trending upward into next season and beyond, the players feel the Mason Nation will quickly jump on the bandwagon.

Men’s basketball, baseball, men’s soccer and women’s volleyball have all made it to the NCAA Tournament recently, and the students have done a great job of showing their support.

“I see this team being a staple at Mason, something everyone knows about and can set the standard for the school’s winning ways,” said Shrieves. “And as big as hockey is getting around here, I think without a doubt we have a chance to be more than a club team, and become an NCAA team.”