“Hockey will never work in the desert,” is a popular saying amongst people who didn’t believe a successful hockey team could be born in Southern Nevada.
However the University of Nevada-Las Vegas’ club hockey program, the Skatin’ Rebels, have given those people a run for their money in recent years.
Created and founded in 2005, it started in the Division-II of the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) league. Now, it is one of the top Division-I ACHA programs and is currently not far off from NCAA Division-I status after coming off a program-best 26-4-1 record last season.
UNLV Hockey made it to the ACHA National Tournament semifinals last season for the first time in program history. The Rebels now are looking to not only win their first national championship, but also make a mark in the NCAA in the next few years after adding NCAA opponents to their schedule this season.
“In order for our program to go to Division-I,” Hunter Muzzillo said, “we have to prove we can play well against NCAA teams and that’s our next move.”
After a winning streak of 16 straight games last season, the Skatin’ Rebels added a series against the University of Alaska-Anchorage, their first NCAA Division-I team to play this season. They would go on to add two more games against NCAA teams, which is a big jump for the program.
In 2019, Muzzillo arrived as a freshman at UNLV, three years after the Rebels were moved to Division-I in the ACHA. Since then, Muzzillo has not only witnessed the program grow in such a short time, but helped them get to where they are now.
Now the senior captain of this year’s team, Muzzillo will lead his team against multiple NCAA opponents to prove the Skatin’ Rebels belong within those rankings.
Becoming an NCAA team would not only make UNLV Hockey an official team with the university, but would bring in funding from the athletic department, fans and a new winning program under UNLV Athletics.
UNLV Hockey has four NCAA games this season, including a trip to Denver to kick off their season against the 2021-2022 NCAA National Champions, the University of Denver Pioneers.
“I’m really excited,” Muzzillo said. “I think for everyone that’s ever come to this program, that doesn’t have experience at the NCAA Division I level, you always wonder what it’s like to match up against those guys.”
The Pioneers, who are coming off a 31-9-1 season that culminated in winning in the NCAA Championship tournament for their 18th national championship, are what the Rebels are hoping to become in the next few decades.
“I believe in all of them and I believe in myself,” Muzzillo said. “I know that we can match up against a team like that, and we’re really excited to kick off our season against the powerhouse that is the Denver Pioneers because you can’t figure out more about your team than when you play the best teams, and they are the best.”
Last season, Lindenwood University played Denver in an exhibition match, although it lost 9-1, it would ultimately win the ACHA Championship and make the move to the NCAA. This paints the outline UNLV is trying to duplicate, as it lost 10-0 to Denver to open its season just a few weeks ago.
For these NCAA games, the goal is to win, but with UNLV Hockey not playing against teams like this before, the goal is to make its name known and prove hockey can be successful at the school.
“Obviously you have the powerhouse of the NCAA going up against the powerhouse of the ACHA, that brings a lot of attention to our brand and our team,” Muzzillo said. “It puts us on the map nationally.”
Although losing to Denver was tough, the Rebels would use the game as a stepping stone to see how they matched up against champions and the best of the best in intercollegiate hockey.
Despite the loss, UNLV would travel back home to host the University of Utah Utes in a two-game series in the Dollar Loan Center in Henderson for a crowd of over 1,500 people. That was UNLV hockey’s second-largest crowd to date, which meant progress in spreading their name both nationally and locally.
After sweeping the Utes to open their games in Las Vegas, UNLV would be ranked No. 1 in the ACHA, its first-ever No. 1 ranking in program history.
“This team is special,” Muzzillo said. “Anything less than a national championship this season is not in the cards for us.”
While the Skatin’ Rebels are looking to make their first national championship appearance in program history, they have already made history this season.
This week UNLV hosted the University of Alaska-Anchorage here in Las Vegas for their first-ever local NCAA Division-I game at the Dollar Loan Center in Henderson.
This would mark their fourth NCAA game this season so far, as they look to compete and make a name for themselves. UNLV would go on to lose the matchup 3-1, but would take valuable lessons from the game.
“Obviously you’re playing an NCAA Division l team that’s really talented,” head coach Anthony Greener said. “The speed and talent are there…it’s a good little test, obviously taking that one on the chin kinda hurts but like I told the group we’re gonna have to rebound.”
This article was submitted by a UNLV journalism student as part of an assignment for a journalism class to get work published in the student newspaper. The article was edited by The Scarlet & Gray staff.