COMMENTARY — When a friend asked how many fans would come out to see ice hockey teams from Alabama and Auburn play each other, as they have done for four years now, I said, “They’ll have at least 3,000 on Saturday night, and probably sell out.”
My friend was a bit dubious.
“Dude, it’s Alabama and Auburn! If they played competitive tiddly-winks against each other, they would probably draw 2,000 people.”
Sure enough, the crowd that showed up at the Pelham Ice Center on Saturday was a sellout. There were 3,842 fans in attendance, most wearing Bama crimson but about 1,000 in Tiger orange and blue. Crowds for the other games in the three-game series were nearly as big.
It wasn’t always that way for the Frozen Tide.
In 2006, the team was just starting, and I was working for a brand-new newspaper in Hoover. I heard about the Tide by word of mouth, and being a hockey fan, I went to go do a story. Supporters were astounded to see a real live reporter show up — apparently I was their first.
The play is a whole lot better now. Back then, the Frozen Tide could barely beat a teenage team from Canada. Now they are ranked fifth among club teams in the south, and easily handled Auburn with scores of 9-1, 3-0 and 13-1.
They even have a coach with a big name: Mike Quenneville, a cousin of coach Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks, winners of the Stanley Cup in two of the last three NHL seasons.
Mike Quenneville also has championship experience of his own, having been an assistant coach for the University of Alabama-Huntsville Chargers, the state’s only varsity college hockey program and winners of two NCAA Division II titles. Before that, he also played for the team in the late ‘80s.
The amazing thing about what is now known as the “Iron Cup” rivalry is that the Frozen Tide and the Tigers are not even varsity teams. They are clubs, just like rugby and (incredibly) men’s soccer. The SEC does not recognize the sport; a separate organization called the South Eastern Collegiate Hockey Conference, in Division III of the American Collegiate Hockey Association, is the sanctioning body for 10 SEC schools. (Kentucky, Missouri and Texas A&M play a level higher in Division II.)
Club status means that players pay an annual fee, plus buy their own uniforms and gear. Quenneville says the teams annual budget is more than $100,000, and the big crowds for the Iron Cup series help cover a lot of that. Around 10,000 fans over the weekend at $10 a head will go a long way.
The Frozen Tide have a Gardendale tie-in with Pat Bentley, who is an off-ice official for the team. Often he helps do statistics, much as he did with the old Birmingham Bulls of the World Hockey Association and the East Coast Hockey League — there he worked with De Allen, executive pastor at Gardendale First Baptist Church among many other things. Bentley still helps Allen with Gardendale High’s football stats crew, and his nephew Dallas Tidwell was a standout quarterback for the Rockets. (Tidwell now plays for Troy.)
On Saturday night, Bentley was filling in as a goal judge, who sits behind the glass directly behind the goal and “lights the lamp” when he sees the puck cross the goal line. But with a capacity crowd that included lots of kids seeing their first ever hockey game, he spent as much time explaining the game — or chatting with a sportswriter — as he did watching the action.
Many of the old Bulls stats crew help the Frozen Tide as well. “They’re some hard-core hockey fans,” Allen chuckled.
Quenneville said his team has made great strides, but that Auburn is making up ground quickly.
“If you look at where we were at that stage and where Auburn was three years ago, they are steps ahead of us,” he said.
So will hockey ever become a full varsity sport for Bama? Quenneville isn’t sure.
“It’s all because of Title IX — we’d have to find a women’s sport to go with it,” he said. “Women’s lacrosse is pretty big as a club, so if we could help bring them along, you never know.”
Until that time, the Frozen Tide are very content to play for the love of hockey — especially in front of sell-out crowds.