UNLV Hockey Advances, But Needs an Assist

The club team has aspirations for NCAA status—and that goal is no longer a long shot

Illustration: Krystal Ramirez

Cody Williams returned to the eye of a perfect ice storm in his hometown, where he has been instrumental in the resurgence of UNLV’s hockey program. That arc has coincided nicely with the founding of the Vegas Golden Knights, the expansion NHL franchise that starts this fall.

Welcome to Sin Bin City.

Adding further drama to his improbable tale, Williams scored the first goal in UNLV hockey’s first game at T-Mobile Arena in early October against Arizona State’s club team. What’s more, his power-play goal early in the third period proved to be the decider in UNLV’s 3-2 victory before a Sunday-matinee crowd of more than 2,000.

“[It’s] hard to put into words,” says Williams, a 25-year-old sophomore right wing. “To have an impact on that type of game, in that atmosphere, was pretty special … [it was] a great day for the team and the fans. It could not have gone better.”

His dream of playing professionally, even if it’s in the German fourth division, has been duly revived. Williams left Las Vegas after his sophomore year at Shadow Ridge High School for the Midwest to test himself in the murky world of junior hockey. Struggles were manifold. He became a skills director at a hockey center in Independence, Missouri, while keeping in touch with friend Nick Robone, a youth coach in Las Vegas.

Like Williams’ hockey hopes, UNLV’s moribund organization was in danger of disappearing. However, the club team president and director of operations Arturo Castro, and general manager Zee Khan, influential in ASU’s ascension to NCAA Division I status, coordinated the hiring of coach Anthony Vignieri-Greener. A former UNLV player, Vignieri-Greener hired Robone as his assistant. Passion, according to Khan, is the key quality they all share. When that Missouri hockey center closed, Williams accepted Robone’s offer to join the Rebels.

His transition has been nearly seamless. The 5-foot-6 dervish tallied 65 points as a rookie during the team’s 2015–2016 season, when the Rebels finished 24-7-2. He ended the just-completed regular season ranked 11th in scoring, with 72 points (33 goals, 39 assists), in Division II of the American Collegiate Hockey Association. He trumpets playing alongside Swedish center Viktor Brask and right wing Tristan Mayer on the team’s premier scoring line.

UNLV will compete as the top seed in the West Regional playoffs, in Colorado this weekend. Winning that will qualify the team for the national tournament starting March 15 in Ohio. Next season the Rebels will jump to the ACHA Division I, with the confirmation that arrived several weeks after that stirring triumph at T-Mobile.

But Vignieri-Greener, 31, aspires to full-fledged NCAA Division I status, competing against Notre Dame and the rest of collegiate hockey’s elite, within another four to five years. That will require an investment of approximately $20 million, for five years of operating expenses, plus assisting UNLV’s women’s lacrosse club team to gain NCAA status, in accordance with Title IX. The coach says all of that is challenging but doable. When a main benefactor emerges, other angels will follow, Vignieri-Greener says.

The Rebels’ good fortune continued recently: Team officials said a separate dressing room, with lockers and amenities, will be constructed for them in the Vegas Golden Knights’ state-of-the-art practice facility being built in Summerlin, where the UNLV team will soon also play its games.

What stings for Williams is the memory of last year’s regional. He collected five assists but no goals in three games, and Utah State went to the national tournament. But he often remembers where he is: back on the ice. “There can be lots of setbacks, but if you love it, you stick with it.”