Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands - The Unique Story Behind NYCHC's Independently-Run Season

by Justin Miller

The New York Collegiate Hockey Club (NYCHC) was one of the newest clubs to join the AAU and the Empire Conference this season. The team had a 9-9 overall record in AAU play and picked up a win during their first appearance in the Empire Conference playoffs. They also had two players named to the All-Empire teams, with Brandon Avezov making the first team and defenseman, Greg Zaffino, making the second team. But the most fascinating aspect of NYCHC’s season is how close it came to never happening.

Last season, the team operated under the Columbia University name while playing collegiate hockey in the ACHA. As they were beginning to prepare for their 2023-24 season in the AAU, they were informed that the team had lost university support due to a prior eligibility issue. “This meant no funding, no transportation, no access to our bank accounts… we lost all of our ice slots,” Avezov said on what this meant for the state of Columbia hockey. 

Their season was in extreme danger of not happening, so a trio of players stepped to the plate to try and save it. Avezov, along with teammate Rishab Nandan and player-turned-coach, Michael Amato-Montanaro, worked to independently run the team. They did so for the love of the game and for the teammates who they believed deserved to have a season. “These guys had nothing to do with the eligibility stuff that happened that led to all of this, and they were being unfairly punished for it regardless,” Amato-Montanaro said. “To top it off, we had 11 seniors this year. Most of them were here in 2020 and already had a season taken away from them, and now their senior season was about to be taken.”

With limited time to work, there were a lot of steps that needed to be taken to make this season a reality. Once they went through the task of establishing the program as a 501(c)(3), the next step was being able to fund the program. One of the biggest contributors to that effort were the dedicated Columbia alumni. “We worked with our great alumni network,” Amato said. We have almost 150 alumni we keep up with dating back to 1974.” “A lot of them had to be filled in on what was happening, and they had some questions…It was not just fundraising, it was a lot of alumni interactions,” Avezov said. Through the combined efforts of the alumni network, player dues, and other fundraising endeavors, the team behind NYCHC accomplished a tremendous feat. They raised $35,000 in a 10-day period to help this independently run season get underway, a feat that Amato-Montanaro called “remarkable.”

Along with the fundraising efforts, they also had to figure out several logistics for having a hockey season. One of the key ones was transportation, for which the team formulated a unique solution. “We had a van rental place called AAMCAR, and essentially we would have our own guys drive vans,” Avezov said. This process gave the diverse talents on the NYCHC roster their time to shine, with players stepping up to manage transportation and even design the team jerseys. “Jacob Malter designed our jerseys,” Avezov said. “They have our patches, all the names of the philosophers that are on top of our main Butler Library… the jerseys have a ton of design.”

The most tedious logistics issue for NYCHC to solve was scheduling. The change in venue and ice slots a month before the season required a significant amount of effort between the team and the AAU to successfully reschedule the games and officials. “We needed Alex [Klein] to really last-minute help us out and reassign those games,” Amato said. “Obviously, that was very stressful for him, and we’re very appreciative of him pulling through on that.” Avezov echoed Amato-Montanaro’s gratitude towards the AAU officials who helped make this happen. “Stressful time period, but John LaRochester, Joe Mazzie, and Alex Klein really came through for us. I hope that they know that we’re very appreciative of them.”

With all of the prerequisites of having an independently run hockey team covered, next came the season itself. Avezov, Amato, Nandan, and a team of Columbia interns worked hard to try and make it one to remember. “[We] never had a senior night, [and] this year we had an absolutely amazing one,” Amato said. “On top of that, our Winter Classic - [the] first Winter Classic since I’ve been here- had over 150 fans out.” “We had our first-ever alumni game in program history,” Avezov said. “We had an incredible showing - about 15-20 alumni there - and [they] had their own sets of jerseys, socks, apparel, and so forth.”

Adding to this special season was a team that finished fourth in the conference and got a 7-3 win over Fairfield in the Empire Conference Playoffs quarterfinals. Helping NYCHC along in their inaugural season was a great team culture. “I’ve been playing hockey for about 15 years, played on a great number of teams, but there's very few whose culture compares to here at Columbia,” Amato said. “They push you to be better, not only as a player but as a human being too, and I think that’s one of the best things you can ask for out of your teammates.” This team came very close to not having a season at all, until the efforts of a dedicated few revived it and pushed it to spectacular heights. “Not only did we take the steps to just simply have a season, we went above and beyond to make this one of the best seasons our club has ever had,” Amato said. The future for NYCHC is unclear, as a return to the Columbia name and club structure is certainly a possibility. But whatever the future holds, this hockey club has proven their dedication and readiness to take on any challenge that comes their way.