I was born in Riverdale, GA. I was raised in Newnan, GA. Now I study at the University of Georgia. But nothing makes me feel less southern than when I see the looks of confusion on people’s faces when I tell them I’d rather go to a hockey game than sit in a football stadium.
It’s been an unfortunate few years for hockey fans in Georgia. After the Thrashers moved away from Atlanta, the only hope we had left for a semi-professional match was the minor-league team, the Gwinnett Gladiators. I’ve been to a few of their games and they’re good, but it just doesn’t compare to the NHL. Nothing really ever does. And with minimal to no TV coverage, I’m forced to decide between shoddy, low-quality, fifteen-second clips on YouTube or take a seat in a rowdy sports bar with the risk of the game not even being shown. I end up being so out of the loop that I don’t even have a favorite team; if someone’s playing and I can find it on TV, I’m going to watch it. Penguins, Blues, or Stars, it couldn’t make less of a difference to me. Hockey is hockey, and hockey is great.
I’m lucky enough to go to UGA as a hockey fan, as the UGA Ice Dawgs are the 2016 SEC Champions, and are on track to own 2017 as well, currently undefeated. I go to their games whenever I can, and if I can’t make it you can bet I’m finding a crappy Facebook stream of it. Hockey is such a scarcity south of Virginia, so I take whatever I can get. I’ve even ended up dragging a few friends to the games with me; it’s hard to say no when I’m driving and the ticket only costs two dollars. However, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that they’ve enjoyed the games just as much as I have—well, maybe not just as much—even though their knowledge of hockey is minimal to none. It’s a sport that’s accessible to everyone—when I explain it as “essentially soccer on ice” it tends to make a lot more sense to newbies, and although that description isn’t entirely accurate, we’ll let it slide. (Get it? “Slide?” Like ice? …I’ll see my way out, thanks for your time.)
I have found a few fellow southern hockey fans throughout my life, although many of them aren’t really southern; they came here for university and actually hail from northern states. But either way, being able to talk to anyone about the sport is good enough for me. It’s so rare to find someone who actually enjoys hockey that I’ll take whoever I can get. Well, within reason. Some hockey fans can be a bit too…intense outside of the rink. But I digress.
I’m not knocking other, more popular sports in the south. Football and baseball have their merits, and hell, even NASCAR is a commendable sport, but as soon as I walked into my first Thrashers game, way back in 2008 when they played the Blues, I was never the same. I remember watching the players glide across the ice, knock into one another, and maybe knock out a tooth or two (as a kid that was my favorite part…who am I kidding, it’s still my favorite part). I remember getting way too into it—I was an arts kid, so sports weren’t my thing—and screaming into the center of the Phillips Arena. I felt a sense of belonging there, even as a young child. It has continued into the present, whether I’m at a Gladiators or and Ice Dawg match.
Even though it’s not the most popular here, fans undeniably make up for it in team spirit. The hockey community is strong and, despite its small size here in the south, it is no less real and no less passionate. Hockey is hockey, no matter its location, and no matter its location, hockey is amazing.