When you think about University of Alabama atheltics, the first thing that likely comes to mind is football. After all the Crimson Tide is a college football legend and earlier this month picked up yet another national championship title.
What many don’t realize, even in Tuscaloosa where the University is based, is that there’s also the Frozen Tide. Yes, Alabama plays hockey and they have for the past eight years, most recently as part of the South Eastern Collegiate Hockey Conference (SECHC). Over the years the Frozen Tide has built up a solid program, getting all the way to the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Division 3 Nationals in 2012 and looking good do it again this year.
Beyond winning divisional and conference titles and going for national championships, the Frozen Tide is poised to be the first school in the SECHC to record a video in support of You Can Play. According to Kevin Davis, a senior forward and the player leading the effort to make the video, “We’re really excited to make this happen and work to change the stereotype associated with sports.”
It might seem unexpected that a team playing in the traditionally conservative south would take a stand in support of LGBT athletes, but the Frozen Tide is ready to create change. “We’ve got a lot of guys that aren’t from here originally,” Davis says. “We’ve certainly got southern hockey players, but we draw from all over—California, New York, I’m from Colorado. We have as much diversity as you can find in a hockey locker room. There is a conservative stereotype to the south and, for better or worse, it lingers, perhaps longer than it should. We feel we’re in a position as athletes for the university to speak out.
“There are terms that are there—fag, gay and others—that are so ingrained into sports because it’s supposed to be the manliest of places. The perception is that it’s not okay to be who you are. To judge someone based on what they do in their private life just doesn’t make sense. If someone were to choose to be openly gay on our team I think we could accept that and work towards the common goal and aspiration that we all have and that’s to compete.”
The team plans to make the video after the season is over. While the regular season concludes February 8, there are still two critical contests. First up the Frozen Tide defends its 2012 SECHC championship at the 2013 SECHC tournament February 22-24. Then the team has its sights on the ACHA Division 3 Nationals March 12-16.
Meanwhile, there’s little concern over backlash from other teams as Bama proudly says You Can Play. “I think any repercussions of a You Can Play video would not come from within the hockey community,” Davis said. “I believe that, as a group, hockey players ‘get it’ a little bit more, and are more accepting and more supportive than the norm. I think that it would be a ‘superfan’ for an opposing team that would be more likely to taunt on subject like that.”
College Hockey Explodes in the South
The 2012-13 season is the fifth for the SECHC, although some of the schools that play in the conference, like Alabama, have had hockey teams for longer.
Davis points to several factors that he believes contribute to the growing audience that Bama hockey and the other SECHC schools are seeing. “Alex Ovechkin on the Capitals has definitely had an impact since D.C. borders on the south,” he says. “Tampa Bay [Lightening] and the [Carolina] Hurricanes have both won the Stanley Cup. The NHL has been putting a fantastic product out on the ice for the past several years. That helps people realize that hockey is a very exciting game. It’s a lot like football in that you’ve got guys knocking the crap out of each other, except we do it on a steel blade an eighth of an inch thick. It’s hard to deny the skill in that. The more that that catches on the more attractive it can be for southern schools to have a hockey team. We’re working towards the eventual goal to get a southern hockey conference in with the big boys. It’s probably a few years down the road, but it’s a dream.”
You can tell by its schedule that Alabama means business. While most of the schools in the SECHC play a 20-25 game regular season, Alabama plays more than 30, as does Arkansas. In addition to playing the mandatory two games each against their Western Conference rivals, Alabama plays Eastern Conference teams, travels up to Michigan for games, plays NCAA D1 Alabama-Huntsville and travels around the south playing other college teams that are outside the SECHC.
Davis says there are a lot of logistics and time commitments to make the game schedule, and the practices, work. “In Colorado, I can be at four different rinks in 15 minutes drive. [The Frozen Tide] travels 55 miles each way to practice once a week and then plays games all over. If we had the ability we’d play more, but it costs a lot of money.
“We’re still a club sport, but we don’t operate like a club sport. We’ve got a budget and it runs six figures to put on a hockey season. We’ve seen our funding increase substantially from the University compared to what it was a few years ago. We make up the money in player fees and merchandise sales. We’re trying to be good businessmen about this to ensure that [the team] survives past the current generation of the managing individuals. We’re very excited about where the team’s been and where it’s going.”
Recruiting is key to keeping the program alive and, since it’s a club sport, there are no hockey scholarships at Alabama. However, the team works with potential players to see if there are academic scholarships they qualify for to help get them to Bama. The team gets the word out via recruitment websites and word of mouth.
“With the football team as good as it is, Alabama gets noticed,” Davis says. “For any hockey player that saw the hullabaloo of the National Championship Game (which Bama won against Norte Dame early in the month), they might look at the school to see if there’s hockey. That exposure gets us contacts. There’s also no denying the athletic potential in the south. If we can get some of those athletes playing hockey and create a pipeline of recruits to come to the undiscovered hockey market of the south, we will succeed.”
Currently the team practices and plays home games in Pelham, which is just southeast of Birmingham—hence that 55 miles commute to play. One of the things the team would like to eventually see is a rink in Tuscaloosa. “The way we see it, [Crimson Tide football coach] Nick Saban’s name has to be on something, so it might as well be a sports complex that has a ice rink as part of it.”
Tuscaloosa was home to a well-received outdoor rink over the holiday season. While the 65-foot by 85-foot rink was a success, it was certainly too small for hockey.
Alabama / Auburn Rivalry On Ice
One of the cornerstones of the Alabama football season is the annual Iron Bowl game with Auburn University. In 2010, that rivalry took to the ice in the form of the Iron Cup.
This year’s cup games took play January 11 and 12 in Pelham and became the Frozen Tide’s best-attended games of the season. While Friday’s game had around 2,000 attendees, Saturday’s packed the rink to a capacity 3,500 crowd.
For Davis the Friday game marked his return to playing for the team after being sidelined since October 2010 due to a concussion. “I’ve spent the last two years learning the management side of hockey, but I was approached with the opportunity to get back on the squad and I went for it.”
His return to the Frozen Tide saw him pick up an assist as well as a couple minutes in the penalty box. Unfortunately, he also injured his ankle, which took him out of Friday’s game during the third period and kept him on the bench for Saturday. The injury overall was minor and Davis expected to be on the ice the following weekend versus Clemson.
Meanwhile, the Frozen Tide picked up its third Iron Cup victory (yes, they’ve won it every year its existed) with a 7-5 win on Friday and 8-2 win on Saturday. They managed those wins with three of the seniors out with the flu, which was countered by an outstanding showing from freshman player Andre Morard who scored four goals Saturday night and was named MVP for the series.
Three things I noticed in the Iron Cup games:
1) Alabama plays strong hockey. I saw that when I went to the SECHC Showcase games last year and it was evidenced again this year. They’re fast, their penalty kills are great to watch because they tend to be aggressive on the forecheck and they’ve got a solid passing game.
2) Auburn loves penalties. I don’t know the exact stats, but they were in the box… a lot. I’d say four or five times as much as Alabama was.
3) The third period of the Saturday game was very odd for Auburn. It was almost like they’d forgotten how to play the game with poor passes and defense that couldn’t keep the puck in their offensive zone. The third period started at 4-2 and it felt like there could be a dramatic ending, but it ended up 8-2 as Bama capitalized on Auburn’s constant mistakes. I’m not sure if Auburn got over aggressive and lost focus, but it was an interesting collapse to witness.
The SECHC Schools
Here are the schools helping to grow the love of hockey down South:
- University of Florida
- University of Georgia
- University of South Carolina
- University of Tennessee
- Vanderbilt University
- University of Alabama
- Auburn University
- Mississippi State University
- University of Mississippi (Ole Miss)