The puck has dropped on a new hockey season, with professional leagues under way long before, and going on long after, the long winter ahead. The sport — with athletes who train hard, with bodies that bear so much physical play, and a playoff season that can last a month or two — also entertains many fans, especially those who have migrated south from colder climes.
Coastal Carolina University’s club ( www.ccuhockey.com), which hit the ice Sept. 6 to start its second year, already has racked up several wins, including margins of 6-2 over the College of Charleston and 4-0 over The Citadel, both last weekend at the Carolina Ice Palace in North Charleston.
The Chanticleers compete in the East Coast Collegiate Hockey Association — formerly the Blue Ridge Hockey Conference — in the American Collegiate Hockey Association. Andrew Kelly, the president of the team in this, his senior, year at Coastal, said the club spent its first three years playing roller hockey, then traded wheels for blades for the 2013-14. The team won 9 of 18 games last season, said Kelly, who anchors a line by playing center and played roller hockey for two years.
The Coastal club began practices for this season Aug. 22-23 at the Wilmington (N.C.) Ice House, its home ice rink amid the lack of a pad on the Grand Strand. Kelly said he and his 18 teammates worked out several times a week, and even with the school year in full gear, they still commute the roughly 70 to 80 miles to practice one night a week, outside of attending classes by day.
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“It’s definitely tiring,” said Kelly, a recreational sports management major who balances this pastime with studies, but they usually carpool, so that form of teamwork helps their scheduling and pace as well.
Scanning the roster, Kelly, a Boston Bruins fan who grew up in Falmouth, Mass., on Cape Cod, said the majority of CCU hockey players are fellow Bay State natives, with some others from Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, and three members who call the Charleston area home.
Hooked by the sport “when I was 5 or 6 years old,” Kelly said he would accompany his stepfather to watch the man’s nephew play on the local high school varsity team. Graduating to play himself, Kelly said many teams his school played were from suburban Boston, where Lord Stanley’s Cup was most recently hoisted in June 2011.
Representing CCU as a young adult, Kelly said most of the team’s games are away games across the Carolinas, going as far as Alabama and Virginia, and they travel together in Coastal vans to play. Besides the valuable practice time on the ice and body training regimens, Kelly said many of the guys “have gotten into yoga, to help keep the body rejuvenated and stretched out.”
Speaking after a weekend of games Oct. 3-5 in the Yellowhammer State against the universities of Alabama, the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and South Florida, Kelly said hockey fans turn out “in a lot of places we play.”
Kelly said, with a year of ice hockey in the books, he and the team have found recruitment of players easier, and in this new season comprising 22 games, the Chants’ schedule has the “tougher teams in the beginning.”
Hurricanes and FireAntz
Kelly said in his three years at Coastal, he has gone to three Carolina Hurricanes games in Raleigh, N.C. The 2006 Stanley Cup champions give puckheads one of five options to see professional hockey, along with three other leagues: the Canes’ Triple-A farm team in Charlotte, part of the American Hockey League, as well as other minor league clubs: the S.C. Stingrays in North Charleston and Greenville Road Warriors, both in the East Coast Hockey League; and the Fayetteville (N.C.) FireAntz, in the Southern Profressional Hockey League.
Jason Fleming, the FireAntz’ director of marketing, said many season ticket holders have vacation residences in Myrtle Beach. The franchise, starting its 13th year, has an exhibition game Saturday, before its formal season kickoff Oct. 24 at the Crown Center Coliseum. The eight-team league, mostly with clubs spread out across the Southeast, include the Peoria Rivermen, an Illinois affiliate with the 2013 NHL champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Northerners’ relocation southward has helped fuel the growth of ice hockey in the region, Fleming said, and with the game’s speed and tempo experienced when watching in person, and “a little roughness” in the grit by players, Southerners “are becoming really good hockey fans.”
The FireAntz, whose season extends into mid-March, do not have a parent club, which relieves the team of one set of limitations, Fleming said, because when a franchise in the NHL calls up two players from its top farm team, that usually prompts the promotion of two other players on each level in the developmental system. Free of that linkage, though, and a coach “probably losing two of his best players” through the feeder ladder, the FireAntz enjoy continuity and stability in its roster all season long.
Fleming, a follower of the Los Angeles Kings since their “purple and gold … pre-Wayne Gretzky days,” said hockey in general benefits from extra exposure in Winter Olympics coverage and teams like the Kings, with “deep Stanley Cup playoff runs” that led to titles in 2012 and 2014.
In Fayetteville, opening night each year “is always really big,” Fleming said, and Franco Webb will begin his sixth year of play-by-play telecasts live online.
With about 12 years in FireAntz’ front office, Fleming said the Hurricanes’ establishment in Greensboro, N.C., for two years, then settling in Raleigh, after the Hartford Whalers’ move from Connecticut in 1998, “started a foundation here for us” as a sport.
“They started getting people interested in hockey around here,” he said, “and having them so close to Fayetteville has been an advantage. A lot of our fans go to their games, and a lot of their fans come here.”
Most Canes games air on cable TV on Fox Sports Carolinas or its sister station SportSouth.
Fleming grants anyone that “the game is so different” between the levels, because the varsity in the NHL generally are “bigger, faster and stronger, and they’re all 6’4” and 220,” he said referring to the commonplace height and weight, with quite an overall age difference, but the young skaters are driven to climb the ranks, as in organized baseball, and “they’re trying to get where those Hurricanes are.”
The FireAntz’ proximity to the Army’s Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base also provides potential to draw new audiences each year, Fleming said, because personnel’s station assignments might last six months, then they move on to other military destinations, “so the onus is on us to reintroduce ourselves, whether it’s season by season or throughout the season to new soldiers here.”
Fleming, an upstate New York native raised in southern California, said many members of the military come from “up north or out west,” where they might have played the sport,” so once they find out there’s a team here, they come out in droves.”
“Our brand has continued to be successful,” he said of the FireAntz, also promoting the sport in a bigger picture, “and we have really took what was a core fan base and expanded the base. It’s family fun and affordable.”