Ice hockey is as quintessential a northern sport as there is. Kids in Minnesota grow up playing the sport on frozen ponds in the winter and idolizing players from Canada and Eastern Europe. There is nothing about hockey that screams ‘Georgia’. The Atlanta Thrashers, the city’s one-time professional hockey franchise, left town in 2011 for Winnipeg. In fact, in all of the south, only the University of Alabama at Huntsville fields a Division I-caliber college team.
Yet nestled in the competitive American Collegiate Hockey Association, Tech’s men’s hockey team, once a casual club, has reached unprecedented levels of success, making the ACHA National Tournament this year. Their journey, difficult as it was, was punctuated in style with a competitive showing in Columbus, Ohio to finish the year.
For club vice president and goalie Caleb Rudnicki, the sport has been an inextricable part of life. Growing up in South Florida, he learned to skate as soon as he left infancy. When he attended boarding school in Connecticut, the passion followed him there. By the time it was time to leave The Loomis Chaffee School, he knew at least one factor that mattered in his choice of college: a hockey team he could join.
“A lot of people are surprised that Tech has a hockey team,” Rudnicki says with a smile. “I had done some research, trying to be proactive about it, and found them. So I jumped on from there. As long as the school had a team, I was going to play.” And so Rudnicki was quickly aboard.
Tech’s hockey team is actually the longest continuously running in the South, conceived in 1973. But when Rudnicki joined the organization, its standards for entry were not rigorous. “There were no tryouts,” he says of his freshman year. “Anyone could join at any level.” In fact, the 2017 campaign was the first in which the team instituted formal tryouts, which determined which players could dress for games and which ones would have to settle for ice time in practice, not quite good enough to play in competitive matches.
Once the team is put together, there is a matter of determining lines, groups of players who rotate on and off the ice to keep the team fresh. While some teams emphasize a strong attack and others preach conservatism, the Tech lineup strives for balance. Everyone from forwards to goalies learn to work together, understanding teammates’ strengths and weaknesses in an effort to maximize team chemistry.
Yet to refine the team’s skills and strategies, they work with the time and financial limits that befall all student organizations. They hold a single on-ice practice per week; the only somewhat feasible option in the area is in The Ice suburb Cumming, requiring significant commute time. “There’s a ton of rinks closer, but [the Cumming facility] is the only one that offers a decent time,” Rudnicki says. “Some of them will offer 11:30pm practices, and you have to skate until 1 a.m. on a school night.”
That practice is not the extent of the team’s work. They practice in the gym another time each week, working on cardiovascular endurance and playing makeshift games to practice various skill-based components of the sport, such as a street hockey variant called ‘floorball’, introduced by a Swedish member of the team and meant to sharpen stick abilities.
The costs of participating on the team are steep. Members pay for their own travel expenses for away matchups, and the home team is responsible for paying for the venue and referees. That is not to mention an additional fee paid to the ACHA for participation in their league, or the expensive equipment that athletes must wear to safely partake in the sport.
But the costs paid off, and with a bid to the National Tournament, Tech found itself placed in a difficult division, one that onlookers expected to produce speedy play and high scores. Fellow pool members Central Michigan, Air Force and George Mason had all acquitted themselves well over the course of the season. It came down to a round-robin series in Columbus, with the best advancing.
The first game was against Air Force, ranked No. 1 nationally in Division III ACHA play for much of the season. Tech briefly held a 3-2 lead and looked like they would steal one from the Falcons, but an equalizer and then a sudden-death overtime shot by Air Force put Tech away.
The second matchup was against an excellent Central Michigan squad, and the Chippewas accomplished a rare feat: routing the Jackets in 12-3 fashion, fulfilling commentators’ early projections of score-happy matches.
The final contest ended, in fitting hockey style, with an old-school brawl as George Mason sealed a narrow 8-6 win with an empty-net goal. It left Tech winless for the weekend but nonetheless at a new level of success.
More than 10 years after their last National Tournament appearance, the Jackets have finally climbed that mountain again. The only question that remains for a team that has quality competitors aplenty, tryouts to run and a new spark of energy: what’s next?