Hockey isn’t the first sport you’d typically associate with Savannah — or even the fiftieth — but for the past dozen Januaries a unique college tournament has packed large crowds into the Savannah Civic Center.
The Savannah Tire Hockey Classic — Savannah Tire is a new title sponsor this year, succeeding Memorial Health University Hospital — pits a core lineup of four regional universities against each other on ice within the Martin Luther King Jr. Arena: the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, the University of Florida, and Florida State University.
This year, the tournament adds two teams from the Palmetto State, the University of South Carolina and The Citadel, who skate Thursday night in the opening matchup.
“The tournament was one of those ideas where we just said, ‘Why not?’ And it’s been a huge success,” says Ben Wilder of the Greater Savannah Sports Council, organizers of the exhibition. “Our goal is to bring not only ice hockey to Savannah once a year, but tourism dollars from teams visiting and benefits for surrounding communities who like to see hockey.”
While conventional wisdom says the tournament’s main appeal is the presence of well–known universities with large local fan bases — rather than the actual hockey — that may not actually be the case.
“It’s a little bit of both, really,” says John Hoos, coach of the UGA team, usually the fan darlings of the tournament.
“We have some very dedicated, enthusiastic Georgia fans that have made this event a tradition, and we see them every year,” says Hoos. “Now that we’ve been doing this for 12 years, we’re seeing kids getting older and having fans we know come by and say hello. It’s become a fun tradition.”
Wilder of the Sports Council concurs.
“We had Georgia Southern University do a survey last year, and 70 percent of the respondents said they mainly came to see hockey. Only ten percent said they came out of college loyalty.”
In any case, the tournament is notable for its crowd appeal. “Every year we get more people than the year before,” says Wilder. “We typically sell out Saturday, and Friday comes close. We’re hoping Thursday night will create enough buzz to help sell out Friday this year.”
One part of the allure is the value: Friday and Saturday, ten bucks each night gets you in to see both games. Loge seats closer to the ice — which sell out quickly — are only $15 per night.
While the teams are affiliated with the universities whose jerseys they wear, technically they play within the American College Hockey Association (ACHA). As non–varsity intercollegiate teams, the players do not receive scholarships and the teams are minimally funded by their universities.
Over the years, the teams have begun to look forward to the Savannah tournament, which comes toward the end of the college hockey season.
“This is an event the whole team looks forward to from start of the season,” says Coach Hoos. “It’s actually one of the largest stages for ACHA hockey in the country.”
“They almost never play in front of a crowd this large,” agrees Wilder.
Hoos says contrary to popular opinion, hockey is no longer a regional sport confined to the chillier climes.
The change, he says, is chiefly due to the expansion of the National Hockey League into southern markets and the expansion of youth hockey in the South.
“There are ten Southeastern Conference schools with hockey programs now, many of which are very competitive,” he says.
“Youth programs in southeastern cities have grown extraordinarily in the last 6 or 7 years. It’s a very competitive scene, with great youth hockey players coming out of Atlanta, Nashville, Birmingham, and other southern cities. Ten years ago I’d have had a very different answer to that question.”
Savannah Tire Hockey Classic
When: Thu. Jan. 14, USC vs. The Citadel, 7:30 p.m.; Fri. Jan. 15, GT vs. FSU, 6 p.m., UGA vs. FLA, 8:30 p.m.; Sat. Jan. 16, FLA vs. FSU 5:30 p.m., UGA vs. GT, 8:30 p.m.
Where: Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.
Cost: Loge $15 adults, $13 kids; General $10 adults, $8 kids