This article has been edited to add new details.
Being a hockey fan in SEC country is a singular experience, as I’m sure many of our readers know. In many places people don’t even know the rules or have never watched a game of your favorite sport, and the vast majority of the population hasn’t ever picked up a hockey stick aside from some games in elementary-level PE classes. The lack of widespread awareness and outward support can be disappointing, even when the NHL is still a relatively niche sport in more traditional markets like Philadelphia or New York. Considering all of that, it’s not shocking that Alabama (a state about as far away from being cold as you could get) doesn’t have a sizable base of diehard hockey fans. Auburn Hockey and the other members of the South Eastern Collegiate Hockey Conference are trying to change that.
The SECHC is comprised of a surprisingly diverse group of club teams from around the southeast. The current list of schools has familiar faces like the Tennessee Volunteers, Georgia Bulldogs and Ole Miss Rebels, but it’s also home to names like Florida Atlantic. The list has expanded and contracted over the years, much like the early days of the NHL, but with increasing support and recognition from their respective schools, most of the members of the NCAA’s South Eastern Conference have managed to maintain a club team throughout the decade.
Hockey is on the rise, with increased attendance and interest in recent years on southern campuses; I can speak from experience as a current Auburn student. As Steven Stamkos and Filip Forsberg jerseys begin to sporadically dot the south and minor leagues like the SPHL and FPHL grow and change, more and more fans are being born and raised in non-traditional markets. For as much crap as we give Gary Bettman for his “grand vision” of expansion, the competently-run teams of the Sun Belt have been extraordinarily successful in creating lasting love of the game—something Nashville fans are extremely familiar with.
A perfect example of the effects of those decisions is the case of Brandon Weis, Auburn Hockey’s club president. Weis was born in Dothan, Alabama, but moved to Huntsville at age one and grew up playing street hockey. He cites playing mini-sticks with his neighbors as the tipping point for when he fell in love with hockey, but says he started getting on the ice around age seven when a new neighbor who played moved in down the street. Weis became a Penguins fan, made trips to Alabama-Huntsville and Huntsville Havoc games, and played hockey in Huntsville’s youth program. He is a microcosm of how the sport can and should be grown, and he’s one of the people leading the charge for Auburn’s team.
The club has recently made a few additions and changes, including a partnership with Rebirth Sports to update and manufacture their uniforms. For a team financially independent of the university and looking to appeal to a college market, the impact of jersey sales cannot be understated. Auburn Hockey’s store is currently selling both their Orange Crush and Stormtrooper uniforms (as I’ve nicknamed them) for $125 apiece including customization, though the sale will only last until March 16th at midnight. Around campus, you can see students wearing the new jerseys layered over jackets and hoodies when it’s cold and over shirts when it’s not, a show of support for the team that might have been difficult to imagine several years ago.
On the new white uniform design, Weis said, “Our white jerseys were kinda old looking, so I called up Rebirth and asked them if they could design something similar to our football team’s jerseys. They drew it up and sent it over, and we liked it.” The team is also looking to add another uniform, this time with a touch of blue; these new kits will likely only be available at the end of the 2021-2022 season when the next jersey sale begins.
The growth of the team isn’t limited to just merchandise or even support from local students, however. New players from all over the country have joined up with the program in hopes of continuing to play the game they love, even in non-traditional circumstances. One such player is supply chain management major and Buffalo native Mike Lafferty. Lafferty grew up in a hardcore hockey environment and played for his high school, but he fits right in with Auburn’s student body. The freshman defender said, “I’m really looking forward to playing in front of fans. I have high expectations, this is a good team and good group of guys and we’re excited for the season.”
With the level of competition within the SECHC improving and the addition of players from Toronto, Boston, and even Nashville, Auburn’s small (but vocal) group of hockey fans is starting to grow. The upcoming season could be a great one for Tigers fans who are looking for a winner to support. Auburn made a run to the SECHC semifinals last year before being eliminated in a heartbreaking overtime loss to Ole Miss, but the team only graduated three seniors and added ten freshmen. Students and alumni alike will have the opportunity to watch games at the Columbus Civic Center in Columbus, Georgia, and all the action will continue to be broadcast on Auburn’s student radio station, 91.1 WEGL. As forward Zach Roos put it, “It’s an electric factory. We’re one of the best teams out there, and we’re gonna make a run for the [championship] this year.”
For a state that loves the fast, physical game of football, it’s about time that the breakneck pace of hockey found its way into college culture. Auburn is doing just that.
Put a blue bucket on that giddyup and we’ll talk about a possible relationship, Auburn. Every morning the first thing I do is hit my knees and say a prayer of gratitude that I’m still breathing. And then I pray for an @NCAAIceHockey SEC conference pic.twitter.com/yWbKrtT6co— Bucci Mane (@Buccigross) March 10, 2021