Alabama hockey has one major goal: Playing in a local ice rink


By WVUA 23 Digital Reporter Sam Thornton

TUSCALOOSA – The University of Alabama fan base prides itself on being an “everything” school and the Crimson Tide club hockey team has been the silent anchor in that statement. The program, adopted in 2006, was at first an attempt to bring former hockey players’ passion to the Capstone. Now that love has flourished into four Division I club teams alongside the first-ever women’s club team on campus.

The expansion of club hockey isn’t limited to an SEC melting pot campus like Alabama. Schools like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University saw the largest club hockey attendance game in history in February at an outdoor setting. More than 20,000 fans packed into Carter-Finley Stadium on a brisk night in Raleigh, North Carolina, to cheer on their respective schools.

The love for hockey is flourishing nationwide, with expansion in the National Hockey League with the adoption of the Vegas Golden Knights and Seattle Kraken, where rabid fanbases have developed with the love of something completely new. All these examples prove hockey has merit in once unpredictable markets, and the University of Alabama is a pocket of the country most hungry for the growth of the game.

“Having hockey in non-traditional places is monumental for the sport because it turns people onto something they’ve never seen before and they fall in love with it,” Alabama club hockey alumni David Mouzon said.

Mouzon, a Huntsville native, played three years on the Alabama club team and is one of the few alumni to witness the program’s exponential growth.

“Seeing the program at the start to where it is now makes me feel like a proud parent,” Mouzon said.

Alabama’s monumental football program brings in students from all over the country, including hockey players from northern states with impressive resumes. The brand that Alabama dictates has brought unprecedented turnouts to club hockey tryouts.

“We had 100 kids try out my first year with the team. As you can imagine, it was eye opening to me because I had no idea how big hockey was in Alabama,” said AAU Division 1 head coach and former Birmingham Bulls player Greg Dreveny.

Even though the program had three club teams established last season, more than 40 players who could easily make a club program were left off the bursting-at-the-seams rosters.

“I showed up to tryouts, had a heck of a resume under my belt and on the first day and didn’t think I was going to make a team,” said current Alabama Division I player and women’s head coach Michael Kramer.

The immense interest has led to the addition of a third Division I men’s program and a women’s program hopefully hitting the ice for the first time this season.

The ambitious expansion of the Crimson Tide program will rely on the women’s team to carry the flag, which will open doors for Title IX opportunities if the program decides to migrate to the NCAA Division I level. Interest for the women’s program is actively present among Alabama’s student body.

“To me, it’s natural and it was going to happen eventually but it just took the right group of girls to get this ball rolling,” Dreveny said.

Junior student and Division II women’s team president Keara Duffany said she’s always dreamed of suiting up in crimson and white after gauging interest from the men’s program.

“Personally, I didn’t want to go to a small 4,000 person school and keep playing hockey there, so I decided to stop. With the women’s team here I get to play again, which I thought would never happen,” Duffany said.

Without a women’s program in the past, several club hockey members believe Alabama may have been a school scratched off young athletes’ lists. Now, there’s a better chance of recruiting quality athletes who want time in the rink.

“I think Alabama had become a non-option to a lot of girls because there’s no feasible skating option,” Kramer said.

Now, the elevated advocacy for the growth of the game is coming to life, which brings hope for other goals in mind.

The sheer atmosphere that Alabama brings to the table can be used as leverage for playing hockey in Tuscaloosa over other prestigious universities. The right pitch of persuasion can turn Alabama into a Division I NCAA program sooner rather than later.

“You wanna go play in the cold or do you wanna come South to an everything school with a historical college environment?” Mouzon said.

Currently an ACHA Division I program, Alabama sits one rung below NCAA Division I status. How close is that jump to a reality?

Arizona State University was boosted from the same ACHA status to a NCAA DI program in 2014 after the transition was funded by a $32 million donation. Now, the program has state of the art hockey facilities highlighted by their home stadium Mullett Arena, which is also home to the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes.

If Alabama made a similar jump, they would join the Hockey East conference, which is a premier stage in college hockey. According to Mouzon, a hockey representative from the University of Connecticut said if Alabama were to join Hockey East, they would give Alabama $3 million annually for television and broadcast rights just to aid the growth of the program.

Though promising, it starts and ends with the construction of an ice rink in Tuscaloosa. To reach NCAA status, a rink must be built within a 5-mile radius of Alabama’s campus.

Currently, the club hockey program practices nearly an hour away at the Pelham Civic Complex in Pelham. That trek creates problems of equal ice time among the teams and more importantly, player safety.

On Aug. 29, 2009, Alabama hockey player Steve Fillo was driving home from practice in Pelham when he ran off the road and flipped his vehicle. He died early the next morning. Fillo’s brother, Joey, was in the vehicle while they were traveling back to Alabama’s campus.  Fillo’s death led to calls for rink relocation from previous and active players, along with the program’s build a rink campaign that has registered 1,500 signatures and raised over $6,000 in merchandise.

University of Alabama club hockey players honor Steve Fillo by placing his framed jersey under Denny Chimes.

The tightknit feeling of the hockey community worldwide is known by those who’ve participated in the game, and Fillo’s death is a reminder to all players involved in the club program to establish a brotherhood bond that will last a lifetime. After Fillo’s passing, he was inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame. With that passion for the program comes a plan of attack, which has seen steps in the development of rink construction already.

Leads to the site of construction of the facility mention available space next to the former Tuscaloosa News office building on Jack Warner Parkway, which will soon be dismantled by the city of Tuscaloosa and rebuilt as the Saban Center. Mouzon has led the way in the investment process among parties for the rink to be built.

Mouzon is the son of a University of Alabama campus architect, so his connections with city officials, including Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, and construction managers have taken him far. Not only are connections at the city level important for action, but so are figures ingrained in the sport of hockey.

Mouzon’s former minor league hockey coach is Mike Quenneville, cousin to Stanley Cup winning head coach Joel Quenneville. Quenneville has been outspoken with Mouzon about his interest in Alabama’s expansion. With connections to powerful figures in the NHL, anything is possible.

Connections are substantial in building cases like this, but it all comes down to the money involved and more importantly, how a particular investment group can plead their case.

“I think it’s about having the right people with the right investment group,” Dreveny said.

That aspect has been met, as a former Alabama hockey alum from Michigan is gathering a group of investors who are ready to throw down big investments for a rink’s construction. The same group attempted to accomplish this goal years ago before the program set up shop in Pelham.

The best hope for the completion of rink construction is interest from College Hockey Inc, a corporation built on expanding the game of hockey. College Hockey Inc is directly affiliated with the NHL. The steps of accomplishment would be for NHL representatives to visit Tuscaloosa and pay for a feasibility study, then conduct a report on their findings of the stadium and present it to the University of Alabama athletic department.

However, there has been no response from Alabama Athletic Director Greg Byrne regarding steps seen to date with rink construction. Without Byrne’s approval, the NHL wouldn’t be willing to travel to Tuscaloosa to conduct any form of study.

The UA Athletics department has final say and will move at their own pace. However, there are two separate ideas that would catch Byrne’s attention: community impact and influence from rival SEC schools.

The University of Georgia is currently constructing its own rink for Division I AAU club level. It’s the first SEC program to break ground on an official hockey arena. The stature of Alabama’s program compared to Georgia’s proves that it seems like perfect timing.

“We don’t wanna be the last SEC school to do this. Once one program drops, everyone else will follow suit,” Dreveny said.

Byrne and Alabama fans alike are competitors, and these developments if known to him fully, should increase interest among the athletic department. If it happened, Alabama would be the only SEC team to have four club teams at all club division I levels to display a new rink, along with the rink increasing the longevity of the women’s program.

The new facility wouldn’t strictly impact the club program’s expansion either. The city of Tuscaloosa would benefit from the revenue the facility creates and the impact it has on a human aspect level.

“I think even with public skate at 10 bucks a pop, the line would be out the door, and that’s evident here with the small pond of ice that the city sets out under the holiday lights,” Dreveny said.

Tuscaloosa itself would benefit from a rink, from public skating to classes in hockey and figure skating to potential minor league and youth programs.

Of course, home games of club teams and perhaps NCAA Division I teams would draw a crowd from Alabama students and fans in the community.

“We wanna bring what SEC football has to the ice,” Dreveny said.

Because of the diversity in student population that attracts football fans to the school, the same came be said for a sport like hockey. Alabama is full of sports fans, and the idea of a regularly sold out crowd with a new venue in town could thrive even during football season.

“This is Alabama. People will go watch badminton,” Mouzon said. “You get hockey on Friday night, football on Saturday, it would be bigger than what I even think it can be.”

The revenue would impact the neighboring downtown eateries and bars before and after puck drop, showing that this project is multi layered for the team and Tuscaloosa community for years to come.

“I know the investment we’re asking them to make is huge, but that’s because the return will be double and immediate,” Kramer said.

The team can display ideas of giving back to the community as well, with equipment drives for youth hockey players in Tuscaloosa who might not be able to afford the expensive gear. With the revenue brought in at the NCAA level and the presence of an upscale facility, the program can make this a reality.

These ideas mean that the proposed stadium should be a substantial construction. A simple patch of ice with a few hundred seats wouldn’t go far enough to generate desired revenue that the city of Tuscaloosa is seeking. The investment return wouldn’t be worth it without an all out effort from all parties involved.

As far now, all sides to make this dream a reality are actively present with interest besides the one that can make this all happen in the Athletics department. Alabama players, alumni and fans of hockey nationwide have high hopes for the program and want to see their expectations blown away.

“I want to see the teams reaching their full potential, and I dare even say we have some banners to hang up in that arena. That’s not a 20 years down the line thing, its more like five,” Kramer said.

Categories: Alabama, College Sports, Local News