The University of British Columbia's men's ice hockey team is going on the defence as it drafts some high-profile help to save the program from funding cuts.

On Tuesday, the university announced its initial list of 16 varsity teams that will receive long-term funding. Thirteen other sports clubs and teams — including the Thunderbirds — did not make the cut. They will have to apply for a second round of funding assessments.

Thunderbirds head coach Milan Dragicevic says it's upsetting.

"Really surprised, really shocked, disappointed, but that happened a couple days ago and now we're moving on and trying to put our best foot forward," said Dragicevic.

The team is fighting back. It has launched a social media campaign to gain public support and has enlisted the help of NHL players, many of whom teamed up with the Thunderbirds in a charity game during the 2012-13 lockout.

"It's very important for B.C. and for Vancouver and gave us a place to skate during the lockout and gave us a place to train," said Vancouver Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa.

The players and their fans are tweeting their support using the hashtag #SaveUBCHockeyThe goal is to sell out UBC's Thunderbird Arena — which can seat up to 7,000 fans — when the team faces off against the University of Calgary Dinos this weekend. The team hopes a sold out game will send a message to the athletic department.

"If we can get a large portion of the student body and a lot of hockey fans in the Lower Mainland out to our games, see what kind of product we have on the ice, see how great [Canadian inter-university sport] is, maybe it can help foster some of the things we're trying to build in this program as part of the review," said Thunderbirds captain Ben Schmidt.

However, the public support and star-studded endorsements may not be enough to save the program. The university is basing its funding decisions on a number of criteria, including striking a balance between men's and women's sports, and individual and team sports.

"Sustained success on that front, in terms of engaging the community and the students on campus, would be a priority," said UBC's managing director of athletics and recreation Ashley Howard.

"Competitive success is one of those areas where we would like to see what we can do to help the team overcome any barriers that have been set up to stop it from being a contending team."

The funding review was announced in 2012, following the university's decision not to join the National Collegiate Athletic Association. In addition to prioritizing funding for sports programs, UBC announced it would provide an additional $800,000 in funding for selected varsity teams by April 2014. 

The second round of funding assessments is expected to be completed by the end of February. 

With files from CBC's Richard Zussman