The Niagara University club hockey team has found an enormous amount of success in recent years. This success is not only prevalent on the ice that the Purple Eagles play on, but is also evident behind the scenes with the coaching staff and in player’s careers both during and after their time at NU.
Head coach Larry Brzeczkowski has helped to lead the team to many victories during his tenure, and has helped lead the Purple Eagles to the program’s 300th team win against SUNY Cortland in October 2016. In addition to the success of Brzeczkowski, former club hockey players and NU alumni Josh Pietrantonio, '16, and Seth Gustin, '17, have found success in a professional hockey league. These are both impressive accomplishments that are notable to the university community.
Pietrantonio and Gustin both play for The Carolina Thunderbirds of Winston Salem, N.C., that play in the Federal Hockey League. For the 2018-2019 season, Pietrantonio, the team’s 25-year-old captain, was named the league's regular-season MVP. This makes him the first Thunderbird player to win this particular award in the FHL.
Pietrantonio leads the team with 73 points, 52 assists, and is one of only three players that has scored more than 20 goals. Pietrantonio joined the Thunderbirds in 2018 and has already become the only player in franchise history that has more than 100 career points. Pietrantonio also leads in assists with 89 total. With the help of Pietrantonio, the Thunderbirds won the 2019 season FHL championship, bringing home the win in overtime.
In addition to his skills on the ice, Pietrantonio lives the mission of NU in his community of Salem, N.C. The mission of NU embodies the Vincentian spirit of focusing on the community, charity, and those in need. Each year he grows his hair and beard out, and then donates the hair to a charity named Children with Hair Loss. This organization provides human hair replacements at no cost to children and young adults facing medically related hair loss. As a part of a haircutting ceremony that took place after a Thunderbird game, Pietrantonio collected donations for St. Baldrick's Foundation, an organization that focuses on childhood cancer research, to be donated along with hair. Pietrantonio has collected over $5,000.
NU’s club hockey coach has also found tremendous success in recent years on the ice. Brzeczkowski is entering his 24th season as Niagara's head coach. Brzeczkowski has experience playing hockey in college, as he played for Buffalo State College from 1990-1993. During the 1993 season, he won an ACHA National Title. For the 1994 season, he transferred to SUNY Buffalo, where he led the league in scoring. Currently, Brzeczkowski is the second longest tenured coach in the American College Hockey Association.
Brzeczkowski has won Northeast Collegiate Hockey League Coach of the Year award numerous times throughout his career. He has also been nominated many times for the ACHA Coach of the Year award. Besides coaching, Brzeczkowski is the general manager at Niagara University’s Dwyer Arena and has held that position from the day that the rink opened.
Brzeckowski spoke to members of the ACHA about his success, saying, “I could not have done this without a good coaching staff, obviously quality players, and support from the university. Back when I started in 1996, Bill Shannon - then the current coach at Mercyhurst - was a mentor for me and guided me through the early tough years. So, I need to send a special thank you to him. I would also like to thank Andy Gojdycz, our league commissioner, for his tireless work with the NECHL, and also Bill Moran, who has always been there for support at any hour of the day. It is a great honor and privilege for all to be a player or a coach in the ACHA.”
NU’s club hockey players’ and staff’s hard work and dedication has certainly paid off. Being able to play club hockey at a competitive level in college is something that is special and unique about NU’s opportunities, as hockey is a huge sport within the area that community members rally behind.