Duel in the Desert represents more than just hockey

Two former UW-Eau Claire teammates, now coaching different teams, reunited for a two-game series.

More stories from Thomas Hensen



In their first ever meeting against an NCAA Division I hockey team on Feb. 5 and 6, the UW-Eau Claire men’s hockey team tied both games of the Duel in the Desert against Arizona State University 3-3.

“It’s obviously a great experience for our program,” head coach Matt Loen said. “We played good competition, and I thought we played well.”

Loen said it gave the Blugolds (13-5-5) not only an opportunity to see what NCAA I hockey is all about but also to show what NCAA Division III hockey represents.

To many, the Duel in the Desert may seem like just that: an opportunity. And although Loen said he thinks this is a great experience for both teams, to him and ASU assistant coach Alex Hicks it also meant a 25-year reunion.

Originally from Calgary, Canada, Hicks played for UW-Eau Claire from 1988-92, establishing himself as not only one of the best Blugolds to ever play hockey but also as one of the best NCAA III hockey players of all time. Hicks holds Eau Claire career records for most goals and assists, making him the highest scoring Blugold ever with 249 points.

“(Hicks) is one of the most decorated Division III hockey players on the planet,” Loen said.

In Hicks’ senior year Loen, an incoming freshman at the time, joined him on the Blugolds’ squad. Loen, a Coon Rapids, Minn. native, played from 1991-95 and was also a force on offense, ranking 10th in career points.

Both players went on to experience success in professional hockey. Loen played for a few minor league teams but spent the majority of his professional career with the Madison Monsters and the Milwaukee Admirals, according to The Internet Hockey Database.

His first year with the Monsters he was named Rookie of the Year of the United Hockey League.

Hicks was able to make it to the majors, playing most noticeably for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and the Pittsburgh Penguins before moving to Germany to play for the Cologne Sharks.

Eventually, they both left their professional careers and settled down. Loen returned to his alma mater in 2007 as head coach and Hicks recently became assistant coach for ASU in their first year competing in NCAA I hockey.

Although they only played one year together, it would eventually become the reason two improbable opponents, the Blugolds and the Sun Devils, would face off in the Duel in the Desert.

Loen said he received a call from Hicks last year as ASU was filling its schedule, asking if Eau Claire would be interested.

“They wanted a good Division III team to come down and play them … and fortunately it worked out,” Loen said.

When asked whether tying an NCAA I team would help Eau Claire get a bid to the NCAA National Championship tournament, Loen said he didn’t think it would make a big difference as these types of games are considered secondary criteria for the bid selection process. He said he would just like to see his team maintain its level of play going into the two final games of the season.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum and confidence into our games this weekend,” Loen said.

Catch the Blugolds in action against UW-Superior at 7 p.m. Friday at the Hobbs Ice Arena. Then, in their final and perhaps most important game of the regular season, Eau Claire will play No. 3 UW-Stevens Point at 7 p.m. Saturday at the K.B. Willett Arena.