There is little question that hockey has seen better days. That’s perhaps no more evident anywhere than in Georgia.
The Atlanta Thrashers became the second NHL franchise to leave the city when they were sold and moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba last year. Without a pro team to fuel interest in the sport, the Georgia Student Hockey League (GSHL) has dwindled to 17 teams. And the NHL, which saw its Stanley Cup finals hit a five-year low in TV ratings in 2012, cannot currently lay claim to a single viewer as it sits mired in a lockout — its third in 18 years — that threatens to cancel the entire season.
But in spite of everything that has gone wrong elsewhere in the sport in recent years, hockey is still alive and well at the college level, and one needs to go no farther than a short drive down Atlanta Highway in Cumming for proof.
For the second straight season, The Ice in Forsyth County is serving as home to Georgia Tech’s 39-year-old hockey program, whose regular season runs from mid-September to early February. The Yellow Jackets are a non-varsity program that competes in Div. III of the American Collegiate Hockey Association.
"We can do everything that a [college] varsity program can do except we cannot give out scholarships to the guys who play for us," Georgia Tech head coach Brian McSparron said.
"We play anywhere between 24 to 28 games. We compete for a regional tournament and we also compete for a national tournament."
In addition to calling The Ice home, the Yellow Jackets also feature a stronger local flavor to their roster than in years past, including team president Michael McKinney, a graduate of West Forsyth High School.
McKinney, a junior forward, won a GHSL state championship during the 2009-10 season as a member of the Forsyth Ice. While growing up he spent plenty of hours on the ice at The Cooler in Alpharetta, and his love for playing the sport has carried into his college years.
The team also boasts players from Alpharetta and Suwanee.
"I think [hockey] is a super-high intensity sport," McKinney said.
"I just [like] the speed, the teamwork involved, and just the non-stop action of it all."
McSparron, who was raised in New York, is a traveling teacher who works with special education students in Forsyth County. He moved to Atlanta in 1998 to become an assistant coach for Tech under Greg Stathis, his old high school hockey coach.
McSparron stepped away from the team in 2003, but remained in Georgia and accepted the job as Tech’s head coach after Stathis passed away in 2008.
The Yellow Jackets finished 16-9 under McSparron last season.
McSparron acknowledges that hockey is in a particularly tough spot here in Georgia, primarily due to the costs associated with playing and the absence of an NHL team.
McSparron said it typically costs more than $300 for a team to get an hour on the ice in Georgia, compared to about $100 in the North.
"It’s more difficult to get kids started down here because of the expense of the sport," he said.
"The average family right now, not seeing [any games on TV], not being able to take their kid to a hockey game, it’s going to [cause participation in the sport to] drop."
Georgia Tech hockey faces its own hurdles, including a budget that typically ranges between $50,000-70,000.
The Yellow Jackets are also hindered by the high academic standards at the school and the rigorous workload its students bear. McSparron is often unable to land players who are interested in the program due to the school’s admission requirements, and the team is limited to only one practice per week.
"Our hardest [task] is just getting guys into the school," McSparron said.
"Being at Tech is more challenging than other schools. The workload they carry is second to none.
"Our guys are at school to get a degree. They’re not there to be professional hockey players afterwards."
McSparron believes it’s unlikely that will ever change at Georgia Tech.
Due in part to the restrictions associated with Title IX, the Yellow Jackets — and most other collegiate hockey teams — are all but certain to remain non-varsity programs.
"Penn State [hockey] actually ... went from being a non-varsity sport to a varsity sport this year," McSparron said. "That only happened because of a major donor, who donated millions [of dollars] to the program to start both a men’s and a women’s program.
"People keep asking us if we’re ever going to become a varsity program, and the answer is probably not. We’re always going to be where we’re at, which is a shame because the way hockey is growing all over the country, a lot of schools probably could put together a really good hockey program."
If there’s one thing Georgia Tech hockey does share with other collegiate programs around the state, it’s a rivalry element. And, being Georgia Tech, the program has no bigger adversary than the University of Georgia.
The Yellow Jackets (8-7) host the Ice Dogs (8-6) tonight. McSparron said about 1,000 spectators turned out for last year’s game.
"I think the Tech-Georgia rivalry carries [over to] just about everything between the two schools," McKinney said.
"Since I walked in as a freshman, since I walked in the door, that’s been the biggest game of the year. Those games have been the most intense I’ve played in my college career.
"It’s just as intense as football."
Said McSparron: "The one thing about hockey, it’s not a TV sport — you have to watch it live. It’s [as different as] night and day."
The Yellow Jackets and Ice Dogs will face off at 8:30 p.m. tonight at The Ice, located at 1345 Atlanta Highway in Cumming. Tickets are $5 for adults, while children get in for free.