“Frozen Tide” Are For Real
By Darren Lowry

Travel just about anywhere in the Southeast and chances are you will find someone willing to strike up a conversation about college football.
From LSU to Miami to Maryland and everywhere in between, college football is, unquestionably, king.

Nowhere is that more apparent than Tuscaloosa, Ala., where the University of Alabama boasts one of the richest traditions in college football.

Still, not everyone comes there wanting to play ball. Believe it or not, there are some that arrive wanting to play hockey, such as Josh Stokes and Adam English.
The two Alabama students wanted to continue playing hockey during college, so in the fall of 2005, they set out to form a team. Together, along with teammate Will Damaré, they fulfilled the numerous university requirements to become a club and assembled a 15-man roster that played an abbreviated two-game schedule in early 2006.
Thus, the “Frozen Tide” was born.

“We want to give guys an opportunity to come down, play at a great school, and still keep their hockey career going,” English, a defenseman, said. “Some guys don’t get that opportunity. I take great pride in knowing that we’re giving these guys a chance to play hockey.”
The first-year team is playing a 19-game schedule, highlighted naturally by home games against SEC rivals Florida and Tennessee, which defeated Alabama 12-3 on Oct. 20 in Knoxville. The Frozen Tide will also play Georgia Tech in Atlanta and the University of South Florida, the latter to finish off a home-and-away series.
Slightly more than half of the 21 players on the team are from Alabama, while the hometowns of the rest are scattered from Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia to Missouri, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.“I think the opportunity to come down here was to not only give myself an opportunity to play at a collegiate level, but to also give players a chance to get the SEC atmosphere that you can’t get anywhere else,” English said.

English actually transferred from the NCAA Division I University of Alabama-Huntsville Chargers and immediately became the team captain and unquestioned leader on the ice.Other players gave different reasons for coming to Alabama.  “I kind of wanted to go down more Southern, warm weather, and still play hockey,” said goalie John Hopkins, who is from Massachusetts.Obviously, it would be impossible to escape the influence of college football on the hockey team. Rather, the players have chosen to embrace it.The team’s Web site features a quote from the legendary Crimson Tide football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant that says, “The will to win is not nearly so important as the will to prepare to win.”

It is in that spirit that the club has approached the season. Despite being a first-year program, the team is already following a specific training regimen and a year-round exercise program. The players also decided they needed the guidance of a top-notch head coach.Fortunately for them, Darren Awender, who played for UAH when the team won NCAA championships in 1995-96 and 1997-98, happened to be living in Birmingham. Awender’s experience and leadership impressed the team enough that he was immediately offered the position. The first thing that struck him was the team’s discipline and willingness to learn.

“I’ve been a part of some teams that, when I blow the whistle, are still horsing around and whatnot. But these guys, when I blow the whistle, they all stop and pay attention,” Awender said. Awender, a native of Windsor, Ontario, says moving to the South was a bit of a culture shock at first.“When I first moved to Alabama, I really didn’t know much about football, and I didn’t know much about NASCAR,” Awender said. “Now I’m a huge fan of both.”

He added that the physical nature and the athleticism of football should make for an easy transition to hockey for fans of the turf sport . “There’s an opportunity to provide something different,” Awender said. “It’s tough to get people to try and grasp that and understand that. I think hockey has that opportunity, because it is such a unique sport.”Both the players and Awender say that the support for the team has been great.

“That’s how we’ve gotten our Little Sisters organization,” Stokes said. “They come out and cheer for us. They have a good time, they get assigned a Big Brother. They’re great, and they’re getting their sorority sisters and all their friends involved in it, and they’re getting involved really nice.”“We expect in the next little while to start bringing in anywhere from 500, 1,000 to 2,000 people,” Awender said.

Unfortunately, all the publicity in the world can’t fix the fact that the closest rink is in Pelham, 40 minutes away. While that might not deter the team from commuting, it does make it slightly harder to draw fans.Still, the team is getting recognized for its diligence and hard work.“They’ve declared us their flagship club program for school,” Awender said. “The president of the university also has given us congratulations on getting this going, and he’s planning on coming out to a game soon.
The local media has started to take notice as well.

“All the news channels are going to be coming out in the next couple of weeks to start giving us coverage,” Awender said. “I was recently on the largest sports network in the South, Jock 690. They had me on there, and they want me back again on a regular basis.”There’s even talk of one day taking the team to the next level. “I think our ultimate goal is to be a varsity sport here,” English said. “Obviously that’s not gonna happen anytime in the near future, but hopefully we’re setting the groundwork for that coming in the next 10-15 years.”In the more immediate future, however, the club is looking forward to possibly joining an all-SEC division next year.

“Now what they want to do is to start having contracts and start playing each other the same weekends with football,” Awender said. “Where on Saturday is the football game, and we would play on the Friday night against the same school in the same city where that football game is occurring.”Despite their humble beginnings, the team is fully committed to becoming one of the best teams in the South.
First, the team will settle for becoming one of the more recognizable groups on campus.

For now, Stokes says the reaction he gets when he tells people he plays hockey for Alabama is generally the same. “Shock, then curiosity, then they definitely get hooked and come out to the games.”


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