The University of Alabama, a hockey school?
The University of Alabama athletics has historically been known as a powerhouse in athletics in the SEC and in college sports in general. However, when you hear the phrase “Roll Tide,” hockey is generally one of the last sports that comes to mind, but in the next couple years that might start to change.
The Alabama hockey team was founded in 2005 by a group of students, and when it was formed there were only 15 people on the team, five short of a full roster. Although the team ended their first season with a record of 0-2, they refused to hang up their skates. Fourteen years later The University of Alabama has two teams competing in the American Collegiate Hockey Association at the Division 1 and Division 3 level. But this growth did not happen overnight, and it was not achieved without obstacles.
Kyle Richards, Alabama’s head coach for the third year, has been a witness to the growth of the program over the years and an influential factor in the separation of the teams into two different divisions. Richards, who is originally from Nova Scotia, played hockey for Castleton University and then coached at West Virginia University before taking the head coaching job on campus.
“I think the name of the school spoke for itself as the team progressed and got better. Kids from up north started to come down so the team became a powerhouse in Division 3, and I think it was around 2014 they felt like they could make that jump to Division 1 ACHA,” Richards said.
The jump proved to be a success and Alabama’s first two games at the Division 1 level ended in two W’s against none other than Richards’ old team: West Virginia. As the team has become more competitive, their notoriety has increased and the recruitment process has become more competitive, which is all great news for the hockey program. However, once the team started to become more competitive, they had to start turning more potential players away, which was a deciding factor in adding a second team.
“We want to grow the game, not just in the south but at the school and I think the reason behind adding that Division 3 team was giving more kids a chance to play. And I don’t think our Division 3 team has more than five Alabama players on it, so that’s about 20 more out of state players that are coming for the hockey program,” said Richards.
“We want to grow the game, not just in the south but at the school”
Another deciding factor for the addition of the Division 3 team was Phil Tesoriero. Originally from Boulder, CO, Tesoriero went on to play collegiately at Davenport University and then professionally in the Champions Hockey League and the Southern Professional Hockey League. Tesoriero was also very positive about the addition of another team in the program.
“I think it’s a great thing. I mean obviously you can only carry a certain number of kids on one team and down here if you can’t make that team there’s a chance you might have to stop playing hockey,” said Tesoriero.
Although the hockey program only seems to continue to grow, it has not been without trials, a primary concern being something that is impossible to change: geographic location. It is no secret that hockey falls subsequent to football, basketball, and baseball in this region of the country when it comes to sports.
When asked if he thought if Alabama was at a disadvantage when it comes to their hockey program due to geographic location Richards said, “Absolutely. There’s no need to slander or anything like that but we aren’t the first sport that’s thought about whether its at the school or in the south, so that definitely hurts us. Obviously here in Alabama we aren’t known for hockey like Boston or New York or anything, but at the same time, you know, you got like coach Kyle Richards.”
It is clear from the roster made up of predominantly out of state students that the coaching staff has been able to overcome this geographic adversity. However, this is not the only problem the hockey program has been presented with. Being a part of The American Collegiate Hockey Associations has given Alabama the opportunity to compete, however, it has presented itself with challenges in itself and the disadvantages are far more apparent than the advantages.
“Obviously the disadvantages are that we’re not supported by the athletic department or the university whereas other teams in our league are and that’s certainly a disadvantage for us. In reality to me there’s no advantage to being a club sport and I’m certainly open if someone has advantages for me.” Although the phrase “club sports” can have a negative connotation associated with it, for the Alabama Hockey team that is not the case. “We don’t look at our D1 team as a club program because we are going out and recruiting high end athletes and we are taking kids that also have NCAA options and they see the value in our school and what we bring as a program,” said Richards.
Tesoriero, being a product of an ACHA program who went on to play professionally, added, “Now that hockeys become bigger down south I think is only going to help grow ACHA programs and help with the overall product. But at least in the South who knows what’s happening in the future, maybe things will change, but it’s a good step in the right direction.”
Regardless of the obstacles and trials this team has had to face, the growth is admirable and undeniable. With two experienced, passionate coaches like Kyle Richards and Phil Tesoriero, it is safe to say this program will continue to blossom and pave the way for other programs in the SEC and the south in general. Next time you say “Roll Tide,” maybe you will think about pucks and skates instead of a football and cleats.