Photo Credit: Porter McLeod
UGA hockey player Brian Gura at an open house for the new Classic Center skating rink.
Get your hats and scarves ready for lots of wear over the next few years as downtown becomes the new home of the University of Georgia Ice Dogs.
Following the Athens-Clarke County Commission’s vote in October to let the Classic Center add a removable ice rink to its exhibit hall, the center is ready to host college hockey. While the Ice Dogs won’t play their first official game until Apr. 9, the team hosted an open house in January for the community to meet the players and see the new rink.
Those looking for great match-ups with other SEC schools will not be disappointed. The Ice Dogs are a Division III member of the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) and play in the South Eastern Collegiate Hockey Association (SECHA). The team faces off against the likes of Tennessee, LSU, Alabama and seven other SEC teams, as well as Emory University and Georgia Tech.
While many UGA students and Athens residents may just now be learning of the Ice Dogs, the team has been around since 1987. The team’s coach, John Hoos, has been at the helm for 14 years and has led the team to seven ACHA National Championship Tournament entries and 12 seasons with a .500 record or better.
In spite of the historically solid record, the move to the Classic Center could not come at a better time for the Ice Dogs. The team, which now plays its home games in Duluth, currently sits last in the SEC East with a 0–5 record, but Hoos believes the team will benefit tremendously from playing in the new facility. Hoos says the team is struggling due to numerous injuries and the overall youthfulness of this year’s squad, but he sees a brighter future as the team brings in transfer players and moves to a local sheet of ice.
“Undoubtedly, having a home crowd rock the Classic Center will be our seventh man for the team," he says. "In the Classic Center… we will have 99 percent screaming Bulldog fans.”
The move downtown will dramatically reduce travel and could potentially mean more home games in the future. Currently, the team practices at the Duluth Ice Forum, the practice facility for the Gwinnett Gladiators of the professional East Coast Hockey Association and the former practice facility of the Atlanta Thrashers (who moved to Winnipeg, Canada in 2011). Junior goalie Kevin Smith says that the team struggles to find open ice time at the forum and only gets to practice about once a week, late at night. “We need to compete with figure skaters, high school teams, and travel teams for ice time, and we need to drive about two hours total for each practice,” he says.
College ice hockey may be new to many people in Athens, but this city is far from the first non-traditional hockey community to host the sport in a downtown setting. The University of Arizona Wildcats, another ACHA team playing the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, has played in downtown Tucson’s convention center since 1980. Closer to home, the University of Alabama-Huntsville Chargers play all home games on campus in the Von Braun Center, and the University of Tennessee Ice Vols play select home games in downtown Knoxville at the Civic Auditorium and Coliseum.
Hoos says the Classic Center will open the team up to the community and further drive the growth of hockey in the Southeast. “The commitment by Paul Cramer, the Classic Center Authority and the Athens-Clarke Mayor and Commission has shown remarkable vision, not just for hockey but a desire to expand diversity of events for the Athens community,” Hoos says. “We have heard from many former Thrasher fans who are thrilled to hear that they can come support another hockey club, so we see a real opportunity to grow hockey with existing fans as well as [with] many people who have never been to a hockey game. I think this is also a signal that collegiate hockey in the South is coming of age.”
The focus now will be on gearing up for the first home game and getting the word out about hockey in downtown Athens. Smith says the team relies primarily on a group of interns to market the team via social media but is hoping to begin to work with the Classic Center on a concerted marketing effort. As the Classic Center transitions to a more arena-style facility, Meredith Metcalf, director of marketing for the Classic Center, says it will be able to offer many additional types of entertainment, from ice hockey to roller derby to ice shows.
Hockey games in the Classic Center could provide a significant boost to the downtown economy. The Ice Dogs have the potential to play in front of 2,300 people, many of whom may not ordinarily be in downtown Athens on a Friday or Saturday evening. The Ice Dogs are another facet of the center’s goal of enhancing the local economy, Metcalf says. The Classic Center is contracted to host roughly 20 games at this point, she says, keeping 90 percent of the revenue to help pay back bonds for ice-making equipment, bleachers and a scoreboard.
“[W]ith our home games moving to Athens, we should see the same or greater success and fan support that other SEC and regional teams have had in recent years,” Hoos says.
See also: Classic City Rollergirls Roll On in 2014