University of Houston senior James Calderone grew up with ice hockey in his blood. The Minnesota native was in skates from the time he could walk. During the long, cold winters, he and his friends played pick-up games on frozen ponds and competed against each other in local leagues. In Minnesota, youth hockey enjoys a similar status to the Friday Night Lights gridiron in Texas. Which is why, when he relocated from the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” to the steamy bayous of Houston, he experienced a bit of a culture shock.
“When I came down to UH, I couldn’t believe there was not even any recognition of the sport anywhere,” Calderone told the Houston Chronicle last May.
So, the sports administration major did what so many college students do when they are looking for like-minded classmates: He posted a flyer saying he was interested in starting a University of Houston hockey team. Garett Marcouiller, a UH senior who grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska—another hockey-mad community—was one of the first to see it.
“I hit him up immediately and said, ‘Hey, is this real?’” Marcouiller says. “Let’s do this! And ever since then, it just took off.”
During the months after Calderone first posted his flyer, a rag-tag mix of hockey-crazed transplants and enthusiastic newbies emerged from UH’s more than 45,000 students to build a new sports club from scratch. And in September, hockey returned to the University of Houston for the first time since the 1940s.
The Origins of UH Hockey
Houston’s love of hockey began at a time when refrigeration was not yet in most people’s homes. In the early 1930s, C.F. McElhinney, a Nova Scotia native, came to Houston and organized the Houston Junior College's hockey team. McElhinney received help from the early Houston hockey impresario Bill Jolly, an entrepreneur who owned an ice company and set up the iconic Polar Wave Ice Palace next to his plant. He hoped the icy sport might drive attention to his business.
By the end of the decade, the city would see teams from high schools, colleges and businesses, including Lone Star Creamery, Falstaff Brewery and the Spalding Blue Streaks, competing fervently in the City Amateur Hockey League at the Polar Wave Ice Palace.
The first UH team took to the ice in 1935. They competed against teams from Rice University and looked for players wherever they could find them, including three students from Montreal who were studying at St. Thomas University.
Coverage in the press was sporadic, so little is known about those early teams. They faced challenges like gathering equipment and ice time. But some existing reports suggest the Canadian sport captured the imagination of local sports fans. In 1935, a game reported by The Rice Thresher was so intense that it led to multiple injuries, from stick-inflicted wounds to one player being "knocked out by a puck."
The team disbanded for a few years in the 1930s before reemerging in 1938. Success in the early 1940s was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. By the time the war ended, UH’s fledgling hockey program was little more than a faded memory.
Back on the Ice
The story of this year’s revival of UH hockey reads a bit like the plot of a Disney movie. Calderone’s flyer—as well as recruiting efforts by Marcouiller, who had been playing hockey in a few local Houston “beer leagues”—managed to drum up a couple of dozen interested players. Their skill level ranged from born-and-bred hockey transplants like Calderone and Marcouiller to students brand new to the sport.
“There was an extreme range,” Marcouiller says. “From two players that never played hockey at all at any level—we actually had to have him buy his gear and fit him up in Minnesota. Then we have had players playing since they were two or three years old.”
The two club co-founders managed to recruit a few highly skilled players, including students who had played in junior hockey programs, development hocky clubs designed to feed players into professional and semi-pro leagues.
“The junior players, they have the highest level of hockey under their belt,” Marcouiller says. “So, they kind of came in and took a leadership role in helping those people who are underdeveloped. It has absolutely made a difference.”
The club applied to the Texas Collegiate Hockey Conference, a subdivision of the American Collegiate Hockey Association. They found a home at the Sugar Land Ice and Sports Center. This year’s inaugural season, which will run through February 2024, has them playing 20 games against teams better known for their top-tier football programs, like Texas Tech, LSU and UT-Austin. Marcouiller says the team is managing their expectations.
“We’re a new team, so we’re not expecting to come out guns blazing,” he says. “But we are going to slowly and surely get better, and I expect us to make an impact next year.”
One reason for that optimism: Even early in the season, UH hockey is already drumming up recruitment interest.
“We're already getting people from the north that are originally from Houston that said, ‘Hey, I didn't even know Houston started a hockey team,’” Marcouiller says. “Can I transfer to you guys?”
Taking the Ice
On Sept. 8, UH hockey took to the ice for the first time since the 1940s against East Texas Baptist University. The Coogs lost 4-2, but left the ice proudly, recognizing their inaugural game would not define their future. Before the game, players spread word of the game through local Facebook groups and online forums, and Houston’s underground community of enthusiastic hockey fans packed the Sugar Land Ice and Sports Arena. It was the first time Houston hockey fans could watch competitive hockey since the minor league Houston Aeros left town in 2013.
For long-time players like Calderone, the game was about more than hockey. Calderone’s high school career was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in 2020, and although he had grown up with the sport—playing since he was a toddler—the interruption made him feel he never got to complete his hockey journey. The UH team has given him that chance.
“It’s just such a big part of my life,” Calderone told the Daily Cougar, “That I figured it’s almost like you can’t live without it.”