By David Knox, Sports Editor
TRUSSVILLE – Andrew Stoddard knows just when it hit him.
Well, it didn’t really hit him, the broken ice hockey stick. He was standing right behind the glass at a University of Alabama ice hockey game at the Pelham Civic Complex, and when the player snapped his stick right in front of Andrew, the player looked at him and said, “You want this?” and handed it over the glass to the thrilled youngster.
His dad sawed it down to make it a good height, and Andrew would “play” hockey in the house. That’s when it really hit him. “He said, ‘Mom, I’m gonna play hockey!’ said Nicole Stoddard, his mother.
Never mind that he didn’t have any skates, had never skated on ice, and wasn’t even that hot at roller-skating. He’d found something he had a passion for.
“He doesn’t want to play anything else,” said his mom.
Andrew, who is 9 and attends Magnolia Elementary School, is one of just a few area children playing ice hockey in the Pelham Youth Hockey League “house league” or the Birmingham Bulls Hockey “travel program.” Another Trussville youngster, Noah Carlisle, a good friend of Andrew’s, also plays.
The president of Birmingham Bulls Hockey is Dan Predhomme, also a Trussville resident. The Bulls are organized under the Alabama Amateur Hockey Association and play in the Southern Youth Travel Hockey League against teams from Huntsville, Atlanta, Nashville, Knoxville, Pensacola, Memphis, Little Rock and others.
The PYHL is a recreational league with divisions for all ages. Last year, as the numbers were building, players on travel teams were required to also play house league hockey, but with numbers growing, that’s not a requirement this season.
The PYHL house league play begins this week and the Bulls travel season started in August and runs through March.
Andrew’s parents, Will and Nicole Stoddard, weren’t hockey buffs, though Will is from New York. They’ve lived in Trussville for 11 years and Andrew had played different youth sports. He’d never really watched hockey on TV – baseball was more his thing — and certainly never gave playing the sport a thought.
But an invitation from a friend who’s a Michigan transplant and a big Detroit Red Wings fan to go to an Alabama game at Pelham turned the Stoddards into a hockey family.
“We went to that game and he enjoyed it. We came and watched a few Alabama hockey games and that’s kind of how we got interested,” Nicole said.
Andrew has been playing for a little over two years, and like all the other players, he went through the Learn to Play Hockey program that runs year round at the Civic Complex. Some of the players, including Andrew, began with the Learn to Skate program, as he’d never been on ice before.
“When I started it was pretty hard,” Andrew said. “I wasn’t really very good.”
He was mostly frustrated he couldn’t jump on the ice and immediately skate like his favorite player, Alexander Ovechkin. The frustration passed after just a few sessions on the ice.
“I was very surprised he picked it up that quickly,” his mom said. “After the first three weeks, just skating one night a week, he was able to do some drills and things they were asking him to.”
And he was good enough to earn a spot as deffenseman on the Mite travel team last year and this season he earned a spot as an alternate on the Squirt travel team as a wing.
Birmingham and hockey have had an on-again, off-again love affair. It’s blossomed most when there has been a pro team in town. Now it appears the college club programs in the SEC and at UAB have spurred new interest. Having two sheets of ice, which allows hockey to coexist with the public free skate time, is a better situation than at the old Alpine/Oxmoor rink in Homewood that only had one sheet.
It does take time for one to drive to Pelham from the northern suburbs.
“It’s a huge time commitment,” Nicole said, “but it’s doable. And I would say for us, we like the atmosphere of the people here at hockey. It’s just different than ‘park league sports.’ It’s an eclectic bunch from all over the place. I think we like the fact that the men that are coaching are teaching our boys life skills as well as hockey. How to be respectful and be good teammates, be respectful to parents and other adults. They get more than just hockey.”
A highlight for Andrew last year was an invitation for his team to play in Hershey, Pa., in an outdoor Mite Division Classic, where they got to test themselves against teams from the North and made it to the semifinals.
Of course, the biggest highlight was likely the trip to Hershey’s Chocolate World where they got free Kit-Kats and a Hershey chocolate basketball. “They didn’t have a puck,” Andrew said.
The cost is comparable to other sports. “Really, we don’t have a problem with it,” Nicole said. “because of the amount of ice time they get. They really get a lot of ice touches in this program. So if you add up what it would cost you even just to bring your kid to public skate, the number of times they are out here being coached, you would pay twice what we’re paying for hockey itself.
“And, it’s a longer season than any other sports. So you’re really paying about the same, but you’re getting an activity that lasts them from October to March.”
Predhomme thinks parents have a misconception about the cost. His own daughter played travel softball.
“I spent $600-$800 a month just on lessons. If you’re going to make the same kind of commitment, I started at 6 in the morning and got home at 1 in the morning, and in 110 degree heat. It’s a huge commitment.
“I think people are scared of the cost of equipment, but we have a trading website where kids can exchange commitment. We’re actually looking at partnering with the Nashville Predators, who have a program at outfitting Mites players with brand-new equipment for $108 from head to toe. All they want is a few banners.”
Erik Hudson is Pelham’s director of hockey, a full-time position he assumed after serving as a coach in his native Chicago at Lake Forest College.
Hudson said there are about 130 children in the PYHL, another 50-60 in the travel program and 100 or so came through the Learn to Play program. “So, about 200 to 250 playing hockey of some type.”
He’s always looking for more, so he’s got a goal of two teams at each level of the travel program. He’d like to get the PYHL up to 300 kids.
Hudson said many people aren’t even aware there’s an ice rink in the area, much less a hockley league.
“I go to a lot of schools,” Hudson said. “I’ve got about 20 schools lined up, get in front of every single PE class. Getting on social media. Word-of-mouth. Every avenue we can use. And retain the kids we have here.
“If we can grow about 30-50 kids per year and retain our players at 90 percent, that’s a good goal.”
Not only do the house and travel programs call Pelham Civic Complex home, but there are also adult leagues. Furthermore, the Alabama club team, the new UAB club team and the Mississippi State club team all play their home games there.
For more information, contact Dan Predhomme at email@example.com or the website at birminghambullshockey.com or Erik Hudson at firstname.lastname@example.org or the website at pelhamhockey.net.