The responses from those unaware all sound alike: “There’s a college hockey tournament in the South? Where football, basketball and baseball are kings? That couldn’t possibly work.”

Oh, there is, and it does work.

The annual South Eastern Collegiate Hockey Conference tournament moved to Ford Ice Center-Bellevue this year. The SECHC consists of several NCAA SEC schools, as well as some non-SEC schools. All member schools field independent club ice hockey teams competing in Division III of the American Collegiate Hockey Association, or ACHA.

Georgia Tech’s Matthew Connelly stick-handles the puck away from FAU’s Miles Davidson during the Georgia Tech-FAU game Saturday at the SECHC Tournament. Photo by Nick Rogers.

A familiar SEC school, the University of Georgia Ice Dawgs were the defending champions from last year. Previously, Ford Ice Center-Antioch hosted the tournament from 2016-2019. The SECHC announced Monday the tournament is scheduled to be held at Bellevue again next year.

As someone who’s been to a grand total of one college hockey game in my life, I had no idea what to expect this past weekend at the SECHC. So, now that I’ve had a few days to constantly sleep decompress, here’s what I expected going into the weekend.

I expected to not get much sleep, I expected to frantically run around like a headless chicken in an attempt to shoot good photos during the games, and I expected to watch a borderline-unhealthy amount of hockey. It wasn’t just what I expected which made the tournament one of the most fun events I have ever had the pleasure of covering, however.

It was what I didn’t expect.

I didn’t expect to run on nothing but rice krispy treats, fruit snacks and Vitamin Water. I didn’t expect to debate which fast food restaurant’s fries are the best in a media room. I didn’t expect doing public address announcing at 11 a.m., running on four hours of sleep and two extra-large iced coffees.

But most of all, I did not expect to have so much goshdarn fun.

From start to finish, covering the entire tournament was a blast. Even though it’s club hockey, the players have a high level of skill and the tournament itself had some really good, fun-to-watch hockey.

The teams got big-time treatment, including team-specific goal horns, a hype-up mix during warmups and lighting effects during pregame and after goals. Tournament and rink staff did a phenomenal job curating and creating a big-time tournament atmosphere for every team.

Teams had their own loyal fan sections cheering, chanting and stomping on the cold, loud metal bleachers during the game, at times it felt like a big-time SEC football matchup.

Every game had interesting and close moments beyond the first few minutes after puck drop. Even Arkansas’ 15-2 rout of Tennessee (that’s not a typo,) to open the tournament was a two-goal game at one point.

Arkansas took a 4-0 lead, but two Drew King goals had Tennessee within two to end the first period.

The rest of the tournament had close games and some Herculean performances in net.

Each semifinal game was decided by one goal each, including a 52-save effort by Auburn’s Hayden Harris in a 2-1 semifinal overtime loss to eventual tournament champions Ole Miss.

Ole Miss goaltender Ryan Troy recorded 110 saves over three games, capped off by a clutch 51-save game in the final against Arkansas.

Ole Miss goalie Ryan Troy during warmups against Auburn at the SECHC tournament. Photo by Nick Rogers.

The SECHC Tournament final did not disappoint either, with Ole Miss pulling a comeback victory after trailing number-one seed Arkansas 1-0. Cal Lavery won it in the third period for Ole Miss, their first-ever SECHC Championship.

Overall, the SECHC tournament is easily one of the most exciting hockey tournaments in the southeast. It proves hockey fans in the south don’t have very far to go to watch high-end, high-skill hockey with an incredible atmosphere.

I can’t think of any other time where spending over 12 consecutive hours, three days in a row, in an ice rink would be that much fun.

The SECHC tournament is reinforcing the idea the Nashville Predators taught people in 2017. The idea that hockey can work in the South, just like football, basketball and baseball.

So, who says college hockey can’t work in the South?