Just because a team is south of the Mason-Dixon line, doesn’t mean it automatically sucks. Every team has good seasons and bad seasons. That holds as true for the oldest and most established teams as the newer franchises.
But back to hockey in the South. If you’ve read my profile or know me, you know that my very first NHL game was a Rangers/Islanders game at the Garden in 1986. That was on a blind date and I knew pretty much zilch about hockey, except that players crashed into the boards a lot and fought.
I did not fall in love with hockey until I moved to Alabama and enrolled at the UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA in HUNTSVILLE. UAH is pretty much an engineering school, although I was an English Major. I enrolled because it was near the TV station where I worked and tuition wasn’t as bad as transferring to the main campus in Tuscaloosa would be.
UAH- “Hockey Capital of the South”
I enrolled and immediately started singing the national anthem for the soccer team. (I had a friend who knew the coach). The assistant sports administrator heard me sing and asked if I would serve as the SCHOOL’S national anthem singer. Flattered, I said yes and received a small scholarship (under the “cheerleading” moniker) that mostly paid for my books.
I started singing at every sporting event and enjoyed myself, but the first night I set foot in the Von Braun Civic Center, I knew I was in for something special. It was freezing, it was noisy, they were playing rock music on the loudspeakers. Then, the opening strains of “Sweet Home Alabama” came on and these guys in blue and white invaded the ice. The sounds of skates, sticks and pucks mingled with the sounds of Lynyrd Skynyrd in a way that will never leave me.
Things got quiet. The announcer introduced me and I sang. It was the most nerve-wracking experience, and the most exciting. All the players banged their sticks on the ice as I finished, and then the game began.
I started learning about the game because I had to. The station thought it would save money by having me shoot highlights after I sang. So, I lugged a camera and a 3/4" deck around with me. I learned quickly to follow the puck and anticipate the plays. I learned to zoom in on a potential trouble spot, sometimes just seconds before a fight broke out. I started learning about players. I had to, because the station tapped me to produce a weekly UAH coaches show, which meant I had to book the coaches and players, write interview questions and pre-interview guests. I learned that guys had come from all over to play at UAH. They came from New York, Michigan, Minnesota, Maine, Massachusetts, Washington and Canada. I met my first French-Canadian player. There were one or two players from Alabama, but the majority were from what are considered “hockey states”.
Stu Vitue & Jean-Marc Plante(“Frenchy“)
UAH has had some measure of success, both as a Division I team and a Division II team. They have never put up the numbers of a UND, BC or BU, but the guys played just as hard. Our favorite rivals were University of Alaska- both Fairbanks and Anchorage, and Mankato. My best memory, though, was a home game during the first Gulf War. West Point had come to play (Huntsville is a big military town), and I went to sing the anthem. I am a military kid and seeing all those active duty and retirees at the VBCC to watch the game made my heart swell with pride. That night, instead of singing alone, I asked them to join in and sing in tribute to the men and women fighting in Kuwait. You should have heard the nearly sold-out center respond. I’ll never forget that night.
But I digress.
Even though I love the Pittsburgh Penguins, I did not follow them in the 80’s and 90’s as diligently as I followed the UAH Chargers. One of our alum is now part of the Flyers organization. Our long-time coach, Doug Ross’ son Jared plays for the Phantoms and got called up for one game with the Flyers at the beginning of this season.
Jared Ross as a Charger
Okay, maybe my blog is not the same as Kate’s, which talks about NHL in the South. But I hope you read this and see that even the SEEDS of ice hockey have been being planted in the deep south for a long time, and whether you mock UAH or cheer for them, I’m glad the school had the wherewithal to support a hockey team.
UAH – CHA Champs
And as glad as I am for UAH, I also applaud fans like Kate, who support the Carolina Hurricanes and my good friend Cassie, who staunchly supports the Tampa Bay Lightning through thick and thin. And if a Florida Panther fan showed up here spouting love for his/her team, I’d applaud that person, too.
We are here because we love hockey. It shouldn’t matter what city our team calls “home”. Never doubt their passion— or the passion of their fans.