There was a carnival atmosphere. People were milling around waiting for the big Duke versus Georgetown game at the Triangle Sportsplex.
Basketball? No. ACCHL Hockey!
For those of you reading this from big hockey playing areas, like Michigan, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota and other points just South of the Border - the Canadian Border, it may come as a shock that we have a growing hockey culture South of the Mason-Dixon line.
The ACCHL consists of traditional ACC schools: Virginia (UVA), North Carolina (UNC), Duke, Virginia Tech (aka Tech), Maryland and non-ACC, Virginia Commonwealth University, Georgetown, Liberty and George Mason. Each year these teams compete for the ACCHL Championship at a different rink. This year it was hosted at the Triangle Sportsplex, which is the home rink for both UNC and Duke with Duke being the official host.
I went to the game expecting to see a few fans, some parents, and player's girlfriends in the stands. I took along my Mite age son to see the only live hockey he was going to see this year, because of the NHL lockout and lack of Minor hockey in Greensboro.
Location, Location, Location
Walking in the door of the Triangle Sportsplex, you are greeted by a reception area with a pretty well stocked pro-shop off to the side. On normal days, you will see kids in skates mixing with kids in swimsuits. The Triangle Sportsplex also happens to have a large pool that hosts competitive swim meets almost every weekend.
If you have ever been to a major college or NHL dressing room, you may see players on bikes, treadmills or other workout equipment prior to the game. For one day, these club teams got to have the same experience thanks to the Athletic facilities at the Sportsplex. During the Duke game many of the players from Virginia could be seen watching the game while riding bikes.
The Event of the Season
With my son safely playing among is fellow Triangle Youth Hockey Sharks, I started to scan the crowd. To my surprise there were many adult fans. These were people just coming by to shell out $5 to see some good, live hockey and mostly root for Duke. They brought their kids and were looking forward to the game. All tolled, there were about 105 people.
Then the students arrived. They came in waves. First 20, then 40, then another 20. By the time they stopped coming there were about 200 people there to watch the game. The 3 Sportsplex staff members tried to get them to stay back from the glass, but this was impossible. Everyone was standing by the 2nd period.
The players on these teams are true Student-Athletes. There are no scholarships for club sports. They practice at all hours of the day and night. For many years the slots for Duke and UNC were in the early morning hours. Their current slots at least get them home by 1 AM.
There is no team bus. No equipment manager with skate sharpening gear. Players had to fill out a slip and drop their skates off like everybody else. While some teams have sponsorship deals, most have limited access to additional funding.
These boys are playing the game, because they love it. Just ask the Georgetown player who had to be driven to UNC Hospital to have his neck stitched up about dedication. He stayed onsite trying to find medical staff to sew him back up there, so he could return for the 3rd period. All of this to win a medal and get the team's name on a trophy. If you play hockey, you understand.
The game itself was closely contested with the Georgetown goalie standing on his head and being matched by the efforts of the Duke goalie. Eventually, the size and speed of Georgetown seemed to wear down the host Blue Devils.
It was a good hard-hitting affair with wide-open action and players on each team working hard to gain any advantage. In essence, this was playoff hockey.
ACCHL Hockey - The Future
The biggest challenge facing ACCHL hockey is getting the endorsement of University Administrators. Club sports have to make due with whatever hand-me-downs they can get. With marquee sports like football and basketball getting scholarships, facilities and anything else they want, because they are financially lucrative, hockey has to find a way to work its way into the culture.
While 200 people paying about $5 each is not enough to run a program, it does demonstrate that there is a level of interest. It is not likely that hockey will supplant basketball at Duke or UNC, but with Boston College coming into the ACC there will be at least one school with a Hockey tradition.
Will Hockey become a dominant sport in the new ACC? Probably not any time soon. But for one weekend it showed its potential.
With no publicity, no fanfare and a public skate just 15 minutes prior, almost 200 people showed up for a game miles away from campus at 3 in the afternoon.
Not bad for a club sport.