Picture yourself walking into an college arena filled with students and alumni down south. When you enter, there isn’t a jump ball or kickoff or first pitch.
The puck drops and you realize… you’re at a hockey game.
Hockey is a growing sport, as the NHL is looking to expand to different cities across the country, most notably, a possible move to Las Vegas in 2016. It has also grown immensely over the past couple of years in the NCAA, with Arizona State becoming the first state out west to put out a Division I hockey program starting in the 2015-16 season.
For college hockey, Alabama-Huntsville is the only Division I program in the south. Prior to becoming a Division I program, the university won two Division II championships in the ’90s. Why not more teams in the south?
Hockey is different than basketball, baseball and football. It doesn’t get nearly as much coverage on sports channels, save for playoff time, and even then, they’re run simultaneously with the basketball playoffs. However, when it comes to college hockey, its roots are deep, and its fans are passionate.
There is hockey in North Carolina on college campuses thanks to the American Collegiate Hockey Association. The ACHA is nationwide, and it governs non-varsity or club programs in the United States. Appalachian State, Duke, ECU, Elon, Johnson & Wales, NC State, UNC, UNC Charlotte, UNC Wilmington, and Wake Forest are all teams within the ACHA just from North Carolina. The recent success of Arizona State, winning the tournament back in 2014, is a big reason they’re moving up to the NCAA.
Arizona State has some interesting opponents in its inaugural season. They’re playing every team in the Frozen Four back in 2013, which featured National Champion Yale University. It also features the 2013 runner-up, my alma mater Quinnipiac University.
The ACHA is still young. Since being established in 1991, it has seen many of its teams go from being a club sport at schools to being national contenders. Hockey has rivalries across the country, and there’s no question that Duke, UNC, and NC State all hate each other when it comes to college sports. However, if they can band together, along with the many other teams down south, they can build a conference that encompasses the southern teams to grow in support.
In college hockey, there are conferences that do not necessarily match up with a particular school’s conference in other sports. For example, for UNC, Wake Forest, Duke, and NC State, their ACC rival Boston College competes in Hockey East. Many other teams follow suit when it comes to hockey.
There likely won’t be the same feel walking into a local hockey rink as there would be walking into Cameron Indoor Stadium. However, I can look back to the days when my alma mater’s team played out of a local hockey rink, and realize that as the fan base grows, new stadiums get built, athletic directors take notice and the schools get funding for additional growth.
College hockey down south will never dominate the headlines. However, if the ACHA can continue its success on growing the sport on college campuses, then it’s only a matter of time before the puck drops on a new era of sports in the south.
Ryan DeCosta is the sports reporter for the Elkin Tribune and Yadkin Ripple. He can be reached at 336-258-4052 or via Twitter @rsdecosta.