The hockey island
Players come to Huntsville from both hockey strongholds, outposts
They come from all over. From the suburbs of Nashville all the way to Alberta, Canada, players unite in Huntsville. From European hockey hotbed Sweden to as not-as-hockey-crazy England.
Regardless of where they came from, they all ended up on Division I’s hockey island: Alabama.
Among the 26 players on Alabama-Huntsville’s roster, four countries are represented. Fifteen players hail from Canada while nine come from inside the United States. One player comes from Sweden, another grew up mostly in England.
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“It was my first year in Alberta and I got recruited by them early on and honestly, I threw the application away,” said senior Alex Allan, whose hometown is Calgary. “I had no idea there was a team here but they kept on pursuing me and I finally committed.”
To be fair to Allan, when Alabama-Huntsville was recruiting him, the Chargers were in their final season of the College Hockey Association. For his first three years as a Charger, Allan and the Chargers existed as a college hockey nomad, trying to survive without a conference with virtually no hope of earning a post-season invite.
But since joining the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, first-year head coach Mike Corbett has started noticing potential recruits are starting to know the Chargers program better.
“A couple years ago they were independent and it was probably pretty tough,” Corbett said. “But the WCHA logo, the WCHA moniker is definitely one of the most famous and gets kids looking, especially the Western Canadian ones, the Midwestern kids, because it was primarily a Midwestern league.”
Not that Corbett still doesn’t get the occasional player who wonders why a school from Alabama is recruiting him.
“You talk to kids from the East, they ask us if we are Division I, things like that,” Corbett said. “Depending on my mood, I’ll maybe make a wisecrack back and say yeah, we even have uniforms and all that. We have ice, a rink and all that.”
Only one Alabama born and raised player -- UAH grad Jared Ross -- has ever appeared in the NHL. And just as the Chargers play in a state known more for its football than hockey, sophomore Jack Prince is far from your typical hockey player. He grew up mostly in Leicester, England, about 1 ½ hours north of London.
As a child, Prince spent a few years in Detroit where he discovered the sport. But it wasn’t until 1997 -- a few months after Prince attended his first NHL game -- when his parents moved back to England and he first played the sport.
With few high-quality coaches available, practice time limited to once or twice a week and seasons lasting only 13 or 16 games, Prince didn’t have as much hockey experience as other players his age when his family moved back to Detroit when he was 16. A few years after that, he left Detroit to join a junior club in Dallas.
“I hadn’t lifted a weight until I came to America when I was 16 years old,” Prince said. “Kids here start when they are 13, 14 years old. Right away you can tell the strength as well as practicing three or four day or even five days a week for some teams. That’s a huge advantage because the more you are on the ice the more you can develop.”
But he was still good enough to earn a Division I scholarship and one school quickly stood out.
“Even when I was thinking about committing here, I had a couple of different offers and it was so strange to think I’m talking to a school in Michigan or a school in Minnesota or out East and now, oh, I’m talking to one in Alabama,” Prince said. “It does stick out to you but it’s the uniqueness that I think draws a lot of people.”
While it was the uniqueness of playing hockey in the South that drew Prince to the program, freshman Joakim Broberg found the program’s recent history the appealing part of the team. That’s what helped him decide to leave his native Sweden for the South.
“Obviously when they came in contact with me they gave me a bunch of information and I started to search on the web,” Broberg said. “I felt that rebirth of the program and I felt the support from the school, from the president, from the athletic director. Not only the money but the faith that they are putting in this program that’s what made me choose to come here. “
Not all 26 Chargers come from hometowns as distant as Allan’s or Prince’s or Broberg’s. Junior Craig Pierce is from Roswell, Ga., while Brice Geoffrion hails from the Nashville suburb of Brentwood, Tenn.
The appeal of playing near his home helped draw Geoffrion to Alabama-Huntsville. It also helped that he would be playing with his older brother Sebastian and continue the Geoffrion family tradition of playing hockey.
His great-grandfather Howie Morenz and grandfather Bernie “Boom-Boom” Geoffrion – who is considered to be one of the innovators of the slap shot -- are both Hockey Hall of Famers while his father, Danny, played in the NHL. Brice’s older brother, Blake, played three seasons for the Nashville Predators and the Montreal Canadiens until an injury derailed his career in 2012.
Playing college hockey in the South has helped Geoffrion notice the growth of the game in the region.
“I didn’t even know it but there’s definitely kids growing up in Nashville who know me and my brother Blake and Sebastian and especially Blake,” Geoffrion said. “Blake was big in being a forerunner in getting hockey big in the South. My dad had a huge influence as well, coaching a ton of youth teams. So it’s cool seeing that you actually had a little influence on the game in the South. That goes for Craig Pierson and even Kyle Lysaght, who was on our team last year and was from Atlanta. So that’s probably the coolest part.”
Mixing such diverse backgrounds in Alabama’s fourth-largest city has made for some interesting times. Though the transition has been fairly easy for most players.
“It’s been pretty crazy going from a Canadian city to down here where everyone is speakin’ in a twang and saying y’all,” Allan said. “It’s been different but it’s been a cool experience.”