California trio sparks RIT’s fast start
Kunichika, Yokoyama and Chamberlain bring West Coast flair
When your team is off to a 12-0 start, it's not necessarily the best time to take a month off.
That having been said, RIT junior Ariane Yokoyama has one reason to be glad she's getting out of Rochester for a while.
"I don't like cold weather," said Yokoyama, a junior forward from Van Nuys, Calif., who's majoring in diagnostic medical sonography. "My first winter was probably the worst three months or four months of my life, weather-wise."
When you play college hockey, cold weather is hard to avoid, but Yokoyama and RIT have made up for it by being the hottest team in the country. After a runner-up finish to Norwich at the NCAA championship in March, the Tigers have picked up right where they left off, winning their first 12 games by an average of 5.33 goals per game. RIT leads the nation in that category, as well as scoring offense (6.33 goals per game) and collected all 15 first-place votes in the most recent USCHO.com poll.
"We couldn't have started off any better," coach Scott McDonald said. "I think we put some demons to rest the very first weekend, when we went to Norwich and faced them, seeing them hang a banner. I think a whole lot of motivation went into that weekend, just to get over that hump and put last year to rest and get over it and focus on this year. We go into every weekend with the same mentality: Let's get better all the time, and don't worry about who we're playing. Worry about our game. So far, it's been great."
As in the past, Yokoyama has been a catalyst for the Tigers' explosive offense, ranking third in the nation in assists per game with 12 in 14 contests. However, there's one big assist that Yokoyama doesn't get credit for on the scoresheet: helping McDonald bring her former LA Selects teammates Kourtney Kunichika and Laura Chamberlain to Rochester.
"I've been playing with Ariane since I was 8," Kunichika said, "so we've been best friends for a long time. She was a big part of my decision, I think. She definitely helped me become comfortable when I got here."
The move has certainly paid dividends, as Kunichika led all Division III freshmen in scoring last season, finishing third nationally with 43 points (15g, 28a). This year, she ranks third nationally in points per game, with 22 points (9g, 13a) in 12 games. Her 1.83 points per game average represents a jump of more than a third of a point per game from last season, with only Amherst able to keep her off the scoresheet.
"I think I've gotten a little stronger and faster since last year," Kunichika said, "and I'm trying to work on my leadership."
Naturally, having a longtime teammate like Yokoyama around helps matters. On a team where 15 of 23 players hail from Canada, Kunichika and Yokoyama bring a certain California flair to the Tigers' offense that doesn't always seem like it should work, yet produces consistent results for the Tigers.
"It's different watching them," McDonald said, "because they have a roller hockey background, and it's noticeable on the ice when you watch them. Sometimes, watching the two of them out there, it's like they still have rollerblades on: a lot of circling, a lot of fancy plays that you shouldn't be able to get away with in ice hockey. But somehow, because of the chemistry that they've developed since they were eight years old, they know where each other are. They're very unconventional, which really works out here. It throws me for a loop, so I know it will confuse the other teams."
Meanwhile, at the other end of the ice, Chamberlain is as effective at keeping pucks out of the net as her teammates are at putting them in. Chamberlain, a native of Noroco, Calif. ranks fifth in the nation with a 1.05 goals-against average, down from 1.15 in her freshman campaign, an improvement she attributes in part to the arrival of Jared DeMichiel -- who helped lead the RIT men's team to the Frozen Four in 2010 -- as an assistant coach.
"He's working with us every practice," Chamberlain said, "and he's helping us with things we weren't taught how to do last year."
DeMichiel knows a thing or two about being a star, as his outsized personality made him a media favorite during the RIT men's run to Detroit last year. However, while his return to RIT may have proved helpful for Chamberlain, the presence of three players from southern California on a college hockey team in western New York has more to do with a different star: Wayne Gretzky, whose tenure with the NHL's Los Angeles Kings from 1988 to 1996 started a hockey boom in the area whose effects are being felt today throughout the hockey world, which includes Rochester, N.Y.
"I definitely think it has something to do with that whole timeline," McDonald said. "At that time, in the early 90s, the players' parents were getting into it, and with these girls, that's when they were born. That's when [hockey] was really blowing up out there. The parents are getting into hockey, they're learning about hockey, and these girls have been doing it since a young age. It's really no different from the girls here, out east or in Canada. They're starting at five or six years old, and that's when these guys are starting. It really has to do with Wayne Gretzky moving out to L.A. and blowing up that whole scene out there, giving the young girls and young boys out there an opportunity to play a different kind of sport."
Still, one difference between players from California and players from Ontario is that the Californians are much further from home, which is where the longstanding ties between Yokoyama, Kunichika and Chamberlain come into play.
"We only get to go home once a year," Kunichika said, "and it's really nice having each other around, because we're from the same place, and it's a homey touch when we stay here for the whole year, basically."