A global pandemic was the only event since 1980 that was able to put the history of UA hockey on hold. 42 years into this experiment of hockey in the desert the team continues to survive.
Coming off one season cut short and another canceled entirely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, UA Wildcat hockey returned to the ice this season. Despite going 12 and 6 in the first half of the season the team would lose in their first game of the 2022 ACHA national tournament to Michigan-Dearborn, ending any hopes of capturing a national title.
With many players not having access to consistent ice or any type of traditional off-season training, there was a lot of rust to shake off when the season began on Oct. 1, 2022. The Wildcats lost their first two games on the road in Utah by a combined score of 8 to 3. This was not a strong start for a program coming off back-to-back WCHL conference championships.
Once the team returned to the home ice of the Tucson Arena, they were able to win nine consecutive games in front of the Tucson faithful.
After a slow start to the season, Captain Anthony Cusanelli, who had always been an offensive threat, began looking like himself again. A player that was known for being able to pick a thumbtack off the top crossbar with his wrist shot.
Despite Cusanelli producing 21 points in 28 games, his goal total of 7 was a significant drop from his previous seasons of scoring 19 or more goals. After the long break from COVID-19, it seemed as if Cusanelli was never able to regain his scoring touch.
Cusanelli’s offense was joined this year by newcomer Brody Selman who, in his first year with the program, led the team in points with 24 points in 29 games. But despite this influx of scoring, the team struggled all year to generate enough goals.
Coach Chad Berman described his team as a defense-first unit where every game was a race to three goals. This is in part due to the departure of Bayley Marshall, who was the one player that could always be counted on to score when the team needed it most.
Too often throughout the season, the Wildcats were unable to hold onto a one-goal lead late in the third period. In those scenarios, Berman harped on the team’s lack of killer instincts, the type of killer instinct that wins championships.
The team’s frustrations began to mount into the second half of the season following winter break, and the schedule only became more difficult. The Wildcats were only able to win 2 of their last 11 games, including seven losses on home ice.
Before entering the break, confidence was high that the team could only improve from here, but opponents such as Minot St. and UNLV, two of the top programs in the ACHA, proved to be too difficult of opponents.
Even though ASU was able to win three of their last four games against the UA, the season ended with the Wildcats capturing their fourth consecutive Cactus Cup in the rivalry matchup. Hoisting that cup was important to the seniors who were playing in their final season of competitive hockey.
Losing to ASU on home ice and on senior weekend was not ideal before boarding a flight to St. Louis of the national tournament. The UA would take on Michigan-Dearborn in a play-in game to determine their tournament fate.
In the first period, the Wildcats were fortunate as Michigan-Dearborn hit the posts and could not finish offensive opportunities. Later in the period, Selman would give the Wildcats a one-goal lead playing on a line with Jesse Lowell and Connor Zeigler. It was clear that Selman and Lowell had chemistry on the ice throughout the season, but they rarely had a consistent winger to join them.
A frustrating inability to convert on a minute and a half five on three powerplay sealed the Wildcat’s fate as Michigan-Dearborn would battle back to take a 2-1 lead heading into the third period.
The UA attempted to generate offense in the Michigan-Dearborn zone, but as the clock ticked down the final 20 minutes, the Wildcats could not score. Shots were blocked, plays were broken up at the blue line, and the end result sent the UA back to Tucson after one game.
After the game, Cusanelli skated off and walked into the tunnel head down, not saying a word to anyone. Every player felt shock and disappointment as they packed up their gear at the Centene Community Ice Center.
After so much uncertainty from COVID-19, players such as Cusanelli, Max Meyer, and Anthony Ciurro all expressed gratitude that they could finish their hockey careers on their terms despite the conclusion being disappointing.
As these players move on, it will be up to the returning UA leadership core to carry on the torch.
Lowell, who had 21 points in 28 games, is a power forward that plays a responsible 200-foot game to go along with a dangerous wrist shot.
Defenseman Matthew Hohl, another assistant captain, tallied five goals and proved himself to be an effective puck-moving defenseman with room to grow next season.
Ryan Fischer, a first-year defenseman, made an immediate impact this season, scoring 17 points in 29 games and adding to the transition-focused defense that Berman has cultivated.
John Schively, another first-year defenseman, put up 8 points in 28 games while also being a physical presence in the defensive zone and adept at breaking up dangerous offensive chances.
Many familiar faces, including captain Cusanelli, will not be returning next season. Still, there is a lot to be optimistic about for UA hockey fans when the 2022-2023 season begins.
The Benefits of Determination
On the frozen ponds and asphalt streets of Grand Rapids, Michigan, there was always a hockey game to be found for Chad Berman.
A childhood sport became a life-long obsession. But as Berman began his college hockey career, a routine medical examination ended the dreams he had since he was young enough to tie his skates.
“The doctor came in and said, I'm sorry to say this, but we're not going to be able to clear you to play. We found that the root of your aortic valve was enlarged. So due to that risk, we are unable and unwilling to clear you to play medically,” Berman said. “In one swift conversation, all of my hockey days were done.”
Those hockey days began at the age of 5 after breaking his kneecap in a friend’s backyard playing football. Although he had put on skates before, Berman could not even remember which hand he shot with when he returned to hockey.
He isn’t exactly sure what drew him to the game at first, but he is still addicted.
“There’s something about being on the ice and being caged in on the ice. As I've gotten older, I appreciate unique things, and I think it's a unique sport,” Berman said. “I honestly don’t know what it was about it. I just literally picked it up and couldn’t stop.”
A steep hill of sand down the road from his house and a concrete-floored basement with puck holes in the drywall were his training grounds growing up. Cracks in the concrete floor and a red support pole in the middle of the basement trained Berman off the ice that being unaware could cause pain in this sport.
A Childhood of Work
Berman’s childhood career included winning multiple state championships, one with the Sylvania Maple Leafs while playing in Ohio from 2nd to 5th grade and another with the Grand Rapid Griffins after returning to Michigan.
Berman scored the most memorable goal of his life while playing in Ohio, scoring the game-winner in overtime and punching his team’s ticket to the state championship game.
“I got a breakaway, and I was so nervous that I went to make a move and actually fanned on the puck, missing it completely, but it perfectly drifted five-hole, and all I remember is being claustrophobic at the bottom of the pile,” Berman said.
He was aware that he might not be the biggest player on the ice or the most skilled throughout his teenage career, but he was willing to work.
“I shot 150 pucks every day, and I was into training quite a bit, and we had a sand dune down the road that I could go run that thing like 25 times a day,” Berman said.
“The first time I did one, I puked. It was incredibly hard to do and is probably the best training I’ve ever done.”
When There Was Still Hockey
At 16, Berman considered playing high school hockey in Michigan as some of the best schools ended up with alumni making the NHL. But when a new Junior B team, the Grand Rapid Grizzlies, was created, Berman saw an opportunity.
“It was their first year of existence, and I actually ended up making the team as the last player on the team, and I was shocked. I didn't expect it cause I was only 16, and quite honestly, I was extremely undersized. I was still only 140 pounds, like 5’4 trying to play junior hockey with a bunch of 20-year-olds, and I took a beating that year mentally and physically,” Berman said.
On the Grand Rapid Grizzlies, Berman would first meet David Cadarret. He began as a teammate and then into a lifelong friend. Cadaret was two years older than Berman, and he remembers the first impression the young rookie gave off.
“As young as he was, I've always recognized what Chad is. It is his intense competitiveness. I mean, even at 16, he was, you know, wanting and willing and was effective at his constant competition with the older guys,” Cadarret said.
Cadarret and Berman played for three years together in Grand Rapids and another season together in a higher-level junior league for the Ohio Junior Storm. The years playing together evolved into a rare lifelong friendship for Cadarret.
“He's actually the only person that I've stayed in touch with from hockey and consider a friend up to this point.”
Berman’s fate shifted during his second year of playing college hockey at Fredonia State in Fredonia, New York. He had a productive first season scoring 20 points in 26 games for the Blue Devils in the 2005-2006 season. Getting ready to take the ice for the 2006-2007 season, Berman needed to have a routine NCAA physical to be cleared to play.
Without thinking anything of it, he told the trainer that he would get pain in his chest when he ran long distances—this statement set in motion the events that would end his career.
It began with an echocardiogram at a nearby hospital in Dunkirk near Fredonia, where they discovered that one side of his heart was slightly larger than the other. Berman was told this wasn’t uncommon for athletes, but he now needed to see a cardiologist to be safe.
So Berman drove two hours to the Cleveland Cardiac Clinic. He found out that an enlarged aortic valve posed the risk of an aneurysm, a risk the NCAA will not take.
Berman climbed into his black leather seated Dodge Intrepid with the earth-shattering news delivered and drove back home in silence.
“I pretty much cried the whole way back to Fredonia for like two and a half hours. I couldn't sleep that night. It was a bit of a mental turning point for my life because I kind of came to a conclusion like it scared the heck out of me. No, I wasn't dying, but it felt like it was, and everything I've ever done has been taken from me,” Berman said.
After getting the news, one of the first people Berman called was Cadarret, who tried to make heads or tails of what he was being told over the phone.
“He was pretty wound up, and yeah, it was a tough conversation. I’ll never forget the sound of his voice,” Cadarret said. “He was dealing with the biggest challenge in his life up to that point in time. By far, that was his biggest challenge.”
When Berman returned to Fredonia for their next practice, he broke the news to his teammates and said goodbye to hockey and the #22 that he had worn since he was 15.
“ I remember sitting in my locker, they went off to practice, and I sat in that locker for an hour….. I couldn't take my jersey off. I didn't want to take my gear off because I knew I'd never put it back on again. It was really hard,” Berman said.
The u-shaped locker room with light tan stalls that had plaques and pictures covering the walls was still and silent with no equipment. Berman found himself staring at the floor, leaning forward with elbows on his knees. He thought about standing up over and over but couldn’t.
“I was just a bit paralyzed, a bit frozen. I just didn't want to face what was over the bend,” Berman said. “Everything I had ever done in my life, my next steps were always predicated on hockey; everything about my identity was about hockey.”
Following his diagnosis, Berman felt lost, unsure of the next step in his life as his guiding light of a hockey career was extinguished. He now had to find a new path, and one that had always been in the back of his mind was being a musician.
Berman was heavily impacted by the Dave Matthew’s Band, who he has seen live over 34 times. Berman said he traded a lacrosse stick for a cheap guitar from a friend at 19 and began teaching himself how to play.
After leaving the team, Berman was still in Fredonia to finish the school year living with players on the team. It was eventually too much to watch.
“I couldn't picture myself staying in Fredonia anymore watching hockey and not being a part of it anymore, and so I said, okay, let's go,” Berman said.
He was heading now to Chicago to pursue his ambitions of becoming a singer-songwriter.
Berman bounced around Chicago for eight years playing in different bands and performing cover songs in Wrigleyville. But those gigs were not going to pay the bills.
He found himself working for the Chicago Cubs in crowd management, working his way up to being the guy tackling unruly fans who decided to take their chances running across Wrigley field. More often, he was picking up sunglasses that fell onto the warning track while being heckled by a bunch of drunks in the bleachers.
One day, a guitarist he knew who was working as an assistant hockey coach at Robert Morris University in Illinois for their D2 program was soon moving up to the D1 team. This opened a spot on the D2 team, and Berman jumped at the opportunity.
" I had no job. I think it was for $6,000. That's what I got paid to do this, and I was like sure, and it was something I knew I could enjoy. So I hopped in and was an assistant coach for D2 at Illinois for two years,” Berman said.
After two years, he was promoted to assistant coach for the D1 team. After four years of working with the D1 program, RMU made it to the national championship and was knocked out by Arizona State University.
At the tournament, Berman ran into Greg Powers, the current coach of ASU’s NCAA D1 hockey team, and found out that Shawn Hogan, the current coach of UA hockey, was considering leaving.
Berman was now determined to find a head coaching position. After being turned down by Adrian University and Ohio University, he applied to the University of Arizona.
“I came out here to do the interview. It was the craziest interview of my life. It was 8 am to 5 pm out here. It was insane; all day I'm just running around campus and doing meetings and a PowerPoint,” Berman said. “I was like, I needed to get this job, or I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Before the interview, Berman had prepared obsessively, Cadarret recalls being sent a picture of his prep materials.
“I just remember seeing like a board and easel with, you know, things clicked on it and multiple papers with, you know, different colored dividers in file folders all laid out like on this huge, huge table. And I don't know how long it took him to set that up, let alone make all that stuff,” Cadarret said.
After not hearing anything for a couple of weeks, he returned to Chicago. Assuming he didn’t get the job one day, the phone rang. Berman said he genuinely believed he had lost his chance.
Without even asking his partner Sarah, he simply said over the phone, I accept. They celebrated with Berman’s hardest high five he has ever given to anyone. She still reminds him that he could’ve broken her hand to this day.
When Cadarret heard the news, he was happy to see his friend finally finding his way.
“He was on the path that I knew he could be on, and then when he got this job, at least up until this point in his life, I was like, alright, he's pulling out of it, he's got some victories here from years of sowing what it is that he wanted in life,” Cadarret said.
With his partner and one-year-old in tow, Berman moved to Tucson and became the head coach of UA hockey in the 2014 - 2015 season.
A New Beginning
When Berman joined the program in 2014, the team was in trouble both on and off the ice. The Wildcats won less than 40% of their games in his first two seasons. Berman’s focus on establishing his culture turned that into an 82% win percentage by 2019.
After interning with the team, Tanner Harris, the program’s hockey coordinator, first met Berman at the end of the 2017 season. He remembers meeting Berman for the first time in his office on an ASU game day. Berman is not one for small talk on a day like that, and Harris said he was incredibly intense and a little intimidating. Over the years, they have become friends and not only coworkers.
Harris describes Berman as the type of person who genuinely cares when you are talking to him, he gives his attention and will follow up on what seemed like a passing comment days later. Harris also knows that he is very good at what he does, being a student of hockey.
“I think we are very lucky to have him as an ACHA head coach because of his coaching ability, he has a deep love for hockey, I dont think I’ve ever been around a coach who prepares himself as much before a game. He has individual conversations with players; they know him personally, and he knows them personally,” Harris said.
In 2022 the team has won four consecutive Cactus Cups against ASU, hoisted the WCHL conference championship trophy twice, and every season is considered a genuine contender for a national championship.
Whether it is a being hockey player, a guitarist, a songwriter, or a hockey coach Berman is an individual of commitment. He said that now he will not be satisfied until this team wins a national championship.
A simple decision made for Anthony Cusanelli by his father at four years old set him on his path to becoming the captain of the University of Arizona Wildcat hockey team. During his first learn to skate in Holmdel, New Jersey, he was given figure skates, the second time, it was hockey skates, and he has been lacing them up ever since.
“I remember being in practice twice a week when I was just starting youth hockey, and I remember I was so fired up each of those two days, like Tuesday, Thursday, whatever it was, and I was just sitting in school, I couldn't wait to go home and go to hockey practice,” Cusanelli said.
Hockey was a year-round sport for Cusanelli growing up. When the August through March seasons would finish over the summer, he would always be in camps in clinics. He knows how lucky he was to have a committed family that could afford him the opportunities to play as much hockey as he could ever want.
Ten minutes down the road from his home in Holmdel sat the Redbank Armory Ice Complex, where Cusanelli would play up until the age of 13. The family still has a presence at the arena where so many memories were made, as his mother currently works there in rink operations.
Cusanelli will never forget the rink’s atmosphere, whether for youth championships or high school tournaments.
“There's no seating on the first floor. It’s all just standing, so people always gathered in crowds around the boards,” Cusanelli said. “Every time we played there, it was jam-packed with people, sold out, and people were outside on each other's shoulders trying to see through the windows.”
Youth hockey consisted of non-stop winning for his Red Bank Generals as they won state championships every year. The hockey mecca of Lake Placid was also a yearly tournament destination for the young Cusanelli. When his team won a league championship at ten years old, a banner was commissioned for the team, and it still hangs in the Redbank Armory today.
Cusanelli’s love for the game was cultivated by his father, an avid New Jersey Devils fan who played ball hockey once a week on the streets of Holmdel that his son would watch. Being season ticket holders for the Devils made it so Cusanelli could often be found in the stands of the Prudential center, but not for one significant game.
“The Devils won the cup in 03’ when we had season tickets, and my Dad chose to bring his friend instead of me to game seven. So every time I randomly think about it, I’ll give him a tough time,” Cusanelli said.
But he was able to go to multiple Stanley Cup final games before hitting double digits in age, and those memories stayed with him forever.
Cusanelli’s father always found ways to creatively support his son in his pursuit of becoming a hockey player. He remembers going to the NHL All-Star game in 2003 and joining in on a 10-minute street hockey event. At seven years old, he was handed an envelope with two tickets to the All-Star game for his impressive performance.
Little did he know that his Dad had asked the man to surprise his son with the tickets. A young Cusanelli didn’t let his father forget that his street hockey dominance was the reason they were there throughout the weekend.
After playing for the Red Bank Generals, Cusanelli joined the New Jersey Titans, where he finished up the rest of his youth hockey career.
In the first couple of seasons with the Titans, the team often lost, but Cusanelli remained a dominant player. Although frustrating, he felt loyalty to the team. By the time the team moved into U16 and U18, they were winning again, and his loyalty was rewarded.
When Cusanelli was close to ending his U18 career, his team owner let him know that he could have the opportunity to play junior hockey right at home in the NAHL. When the Titan’s owner bought the NAHL team, Cusanelli was drafted and never had to leave his family behind.
Typically in junior hockey, many players are forced to move from home all over the US or to Canada to pursue their dreams because of opportunities. But because of the circumstances, Cusanelli never had to leave New Jersey.
“I got to stay at home and played juniors for two years, which was awesome having my Mom there at every game and every practice and having all my family members be able to come watch me play anytime. So it all worked out, and I was lucky it all did,” Cusanelli said.
Cusanelli was a multisport athlete who grew up playing baseball and soccer, unlike some other hockey players. The only other sport he is genuinely fascinated by is lacrosse, but after playing freshman year, he had to decide which sport he would commit to playing.
“I mean, I wish I could have kept playing lacrosse, but obviously, hockey was my number one the whole time,” Cusanelli said.
If dedication to the game of hockey was ever in question during his entire time playing with the Titans, he was also playing high school hockey at Christian Brothers Academy.
“I was going from one practice to the other some days, and I would get home at 9 o'clock or 10 o'clock,” Cusanelli said. “ Luckily, I was still very into hockey, so I didn't get burned out….at that time, it's just, I was so in love with hockey.”
That love of hockey continued as Cusanelli decided to move across the country and find a new home at the University of Arizona, playing his first season in 2017. He immediately turned heads and scored a blistering 51 points in 28 games with 31 goals.
His dominance at the Tucson Arena was far from his childhood beginnings on the asphalt.
“I remember being a kid playing roller hockey in my driveway by myself and getting the clock countdown in my head five-second countdown on a breakaway, and I’d score,” Cusanelli said. “Luckily, I've made so many memories to last a lifetime, and the amount of friends I've made is crazy, and I’m so lucky to have so many friends just because of hockey.”
On March 10, 2022, Cusanelli’s competitive hockey career came to an end when the UA was eliminated from the ACHA national tournament in their first game. Two decades of hockey quickly ended, but his legacy at the UA will live on as he is the only player in the program’s history to represent his nation when he was named to Team USA at the World University Games.
In his 123 games with the Wildcats, Cusanelli served as captain for two seasons and scored 158 points. A crowd favorite who routinely scored big goals at the biggest moments and was a quiet but thoughtful leader in the locker room.
UA coach Chad Berman directly credits Cusanelli with the cultural transformation of the program after joining in 2017. Berman remembers that he purposely pushed Cusanelli as hard as he could during their phone interview to make sure he was not only the right player for the team but the right person.
Always one to lead by example, Cusanelli would rarely be found yelling in the locker room, but through actions, he held his teammates to the highest standards.
At the end of his career, Cusanelli will never forget the 431 games, 1,293 periods, and 25,860 minutes that helped form his identity and who he is today.
In his heart, nothing will change, but now that this season is completed, Cusanelli knows he is no longer truly a hockey player