Augustana hockey program expanding culture in South Dakota

Published: Feb. 9, 2022 at 6:22 PM CST
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Ice hockey has a presence in South Dakota with the Rapid City Rush out west and junior hockey teams littered throughout the state. Up until the latest decade, the Mount Rushmore State has been absent a division one college hockey program. That all changes in the fall of 2023 when Augustana University hits the ice. It is the beginning of a stronger hockey presence in South Dakota according to Augustana assistant football coach and hockey dad Matthew Bacoulis.

“Right now my wife and I have three kids, two of which are in the Sioux Falls Flyers program. There are over 700 kids that are signed up to play throughout the high school level all the way down to Mini Atoms that are here in the city of Sioux Falls. Look at the supporting areas of Brandon, Harrisburg, and Tea,” Bacoulis said, “Hockey is growing.”

Bacoulis and his wife formerly played at the University of Buffalo. He was a football player and his wife a softball player. They initially did not have a strong passion for hockey until their sons developed a love for it. “So it’s my wife’s fault and the people at Disney with Gordon Bombay and The Mighty Ducks,” said Bacoulis jokingly. “My kids used to fall asleep to it, and it started to fester.” His sons, Brayden (9) and Colin (7), began skating at age four and have since joined the Sioux Falls Flyers program.

The Flyers helped develop Sioux Falls Stampede players Easton Zueger and Zeb Knutson. Just recently, former Flyer Walker Duehr became the first South Dakotan to make it to hockey’s highest level of competition after he was called up by the NHL’s Calgary Flames to play in a game on November 14 last year. By adding the division one presence at Augustana, younger kids can see the possibility of representing their hometown in more ways than one. 15 collegiate athletes are representing the men’s ice hockey team in the Winter Olympics this year, and South Dakota could very well have a big influence in the future.

“You’re really seeing it be a homegrown effort where you can be a Sioux Falls kid, accelerate at a high level, and play at the highest level all while being within a 30-mile footprint,” Bacoulis said.

All of this ties into why Augustana University’s Athletic Director Josh Morton and university leaders wanted to lead this change. It is the first in South Dakota, the first to compete at the highest level, and the first to call Sioux Falls home. Morton has spent time around prominent hockey cultures at Michigan State University and the University of North Dakota. While those universities have decades of history, he says this community is anxious to be along for the ride for the early years of its own program in South Dakota’s largest metro.

“I think when you’re in this environment, you’re looking for that one thing that separates you from others,” Morton said. I think this for us does it. For us the cool opportunity is we get to build a tradition. When we hire a head coach, they are setting the foundational culture for our program for the next few decades. How cool is [it] that there is a kid skating in Rapid City who can latch onto Augie and we can be his hometown team even though we’re five hours away because we’re the only one in the state competing at that level?”

The MIDCO Arena, the house that will hold these memories, is preparing to be built at 33rd Street and South Grange Avenue near campus across from the Elmen Center. On top of the construction, university administrators are still exploring a possible conference to join, searching for the first head coach, and raising funds throughout the community to materialize this vision as best as possible. Small steps are needed right now, but Morton is optimistic an outdoor hockey game could come in the future if the correct requirements are satisfied. As of now, there are quite a few things administrators and future players are excited about.

“There is a kid right now maybe six or eight years old and maybe their first taste of college hockey was the regional in 2018 at the Denny. Fast forward and they’re part of the inaugural team at Augustana,” Morton said. “How cool is that? Kids today skating at the IcePlex can dream about staying in their hometown, competing at the highest level, and making a difference at Augustana.”

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