Don't tell the University of Alabama-Huntsville that hockey is a new thing in the Deep South.
Since the late 1970s, the Chargers have been the lone outpost of collegiate hockey in the Sun Belt. The next-most Southern team at the NCAA Division I level? Miami University of Ohio, some 400 miles to the north.
This is no 21st century experiment, foisting an unknown sport onto the people of the Rocket City. In fact, it came along with an influx of northerners who moved to Huntsville to work in the city's aerospace industry. Now the stick is as much a part of the UAH campus as football at the big-brother school in Tuscaloosa.
"It wasn't something where they said we'll build and they'll come. They had a group playing and skating, and it went from there," Chargers coach Chris Luongo tells the Scene.
This Friday and Saturday, UAH comes to Bridgestone Arena for a two-game set with Merrimack College. But the team's connection to Middle Tennessee is deeper than a quick weekender.
Luongo, who was trapped at home Monday — there's your weekly incongruity: A college hockey coach in Alabama gets snowed in under 14 inches of the white stuff — says his school has benefited from the NHL's notice in the past couple decades that a market for hockey exists south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
"With the presence of the Predators and [Atlanta] Thrashers and the Florida teams, those youth hockey areas are very strong," he says. "You see [players] coming out of these nontraditional markets. That's the benefit of Nashville growing the youth hockey program. ... It's great to be a benefactor."
When the Predators came to town in 1997, there were fewer than 200 players in the Nashville youth leagues. Now more than 2,000 kids are playing and several area high schools participate in a Predators-backed competition. This despite the Midstate having just two local ice rinks.
The team, meanwhile, committed to growing the sport from the squirts on up, regularly recognizes young players, as well as the volunteers and coaches that are the lifeblood of all youth sports.
This education of a new hockey generation is one reason Luongo says his colleagues in the college ranks can no longer ignore the South when recruiting. It's not as necessary as it once was for colleges to mine Canada for players who just miss out on the professional ranks, as youth programs continue to build talent at home.
"If you were to look at rosters across the U.S. and Canada, you'll see these hometowns where these kids are coming from — it's Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina. It's not half the roster, but it's prominent," he says.
Two crucial players on the Chargers' roster come from Brentwood, that hockey hotbed of Williamson County. Freshman Brice and sophomore Sebastian Geoffrion are both key members of the squad. Their brother is Predators prospect and Hobie Baker Award (hockey's Heisman) winner Blake Geoffrion, currently with the team's minor league affiliate in Milwaukee.
What's worked for the Predators — encouraging grassroots development of hockey — is also starting to pay off, at least a little, for UAH. Not that the team's transition from Division II to I has been totally smooth this year. The Chargers come into the weekend at 3-19-2 a year after their D-I tournament debut.
What's worse is the uncertain future of the program: Even for the old hands, playing hockey down South is never easy. UAH's old conference has disbanded. Obviously, there's no natural geographic match for the Chargers, which leaves them to play as independents. Not only must they schedule 30-plus games, but they have to convince half their opponents to make what is likely the longest road trip of the year, to Huntsville's Von Braun Center.
That's at least some indication of the challenges that plague the Southern movement of a Northern sport. Still, Nashville stands to benefit — perhaps handsomely — if this weekend's games are a box-office success. Sean Henry, the Preds' chief operating officer and the man who convinced the NCAA to bring the "Frozen Four" to Tampa when he worked for the Lightning, said he wants Music City to be in the mix for future national collegiate hockey semifinals and championships.
Maybe UAH will be there — with some Tennesseans on the roster.
A team from Alabama in a national hockey title game in Nashville. Seems as unlikely as 14 inches of snow in Huntsville.
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