Hockey in Nashville is no longer a secret. With the Predators recent trip to the Stanley Cup Final and fans flooding the streets around Bridgestone Arena, hockey has established its place in Music City. The Predators have signed their core to long term contracts, youth hockey in the state is growing faster than ever, so what’s the next big step for Nashville hockey?
The answer rests in West End. In order to bridge the gap between those just beginning and those at the top of the sport, the missing piece of the puzzle lies in college hockey. Vanderbilt University has come to the point of no return. It’s time to embrace the next addition to their athletic department.
Vanderbilt is not new to the sport of hockey, the school has a club hockey team established in the 1970s. The Commodores have made big strides over the last few years. They have found a home at Ford Ice Center in Antioch after partnering with the Nashville Predators, set up a yearly tournament hosting other club hockey teams in the region, hosting the South Eastern Collegiate Hockey Conference (SECHC) tournament, and have had showdowns with Tennessee and Alabama at Bridgestone Arena. The team also made an appearance in the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Championship Tournament in the 2015-2016 season. They have also partnered with Penalty Box Radio to bring in a bigger audience. The demand for more hockey has been embraced by their club team, and it’s paying dividends.
Despite the growth of the club hockey team, and the SECHC, would college hockey work in a predominantly college football market? The answer lies further south in Huntsville, Alabama. The University of Alabama in Huntsville have made the same transition after an influx of transplants from Michigan came to the area, bringing hockey with them, forming the Inaugural hockey team in 1979, three years after Vanderbilt founded their current club team. Under Coach Doug Ross, UAH won three consecutive National Club Hockey Championships in the early 1980s before making the jump to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) in 1985, followed by Division II in 1986. After declaring as an Independent in Division I in 1987, the Chargers would move back to Division II in 1992 where they would win two Division II National Championships in the in 1996 and 1998. The 1998-99 season saw their return to Division I in the inaugural season of College Hockey America, winning the conference championship in 2001 and 2003. The 2006-07 Charger team won their first CHA tournament, earning them a spot in the NCAA tournament where they would lose to Notre Dame in the Midwest Regional. UAH then won the CHA tournament again in 2010, which earned them their second berth in the NCAA tournament, where they would fall in the Midwest Regional, this time to Miami (OH). After some ups and downs as an independent program, the Chargers are currently playing in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, coached by Mike Corbett. Paired with the Huntsville Havoc of the Southern Professional Hockey League, hockey is thriving in Huntsville.
While their counterparts to the south are playing with the big names of the NCAA, Vanderbilt would have to follow the Chargers example and start small. Establishing an official hockey team with the Athletics Department, similar to what Arizona State and Penn State have done, would be an ideal first step for the Commodores if they’re looking to make that leap and take advantage of this sensation that is Nashville hockey.
With hockey in the south on the rise, another southern collegiate team established, and a logical first step to take, the Commodores have an opportunity in front of them. However, the largest issue in front of the university is what is at the heart of every decision a school makes, cost. Vanderbilt’s club hockey team is self sufficient. The players pay dues, sell merchandise and more. An NCAA team should be able to bring in boosters and sponsors who are looking to capitalize on this wave of hockey that has taken over the Middle Tennessee area.
Of course, this is all theoretical. The university hasn’t expressed interest in expanding its hockey operations, at least not publicly. However, it is impossible for Vanderbilt to have not seen the results of the Predators’ Stanley Cup run and it’s possibilities for their own athletic success. Coach Thomas Bernstein has taken a reduced role to spend more time with his family but would be an ideal candidate if a full-time job were to be established as head coach. Vanderbilt has a hockey thirsty community who is ready for more, a state of the art place to play at the Ford Ice Center in Antioch, and an opportunity to bring NCAA hockey to Nashville. It’s time for Vanderbilt to seriously invest in hockey.