College hockey is thriving in the Deep South and it's attracting Canadians.
Head deep into America's south to Huntsville, Alabama, and there you'll find king cotton, a space rocket arsenal and, for young Canadians like Marc Narduzzi, a perfectly logical place to play hockey.
Narduzzi, a goaltender from Vancouver, was faced with the option of accepting an offer to play Major Junior hockey or taking a longer, tougher road due south. One choice was filled with nightmares of two-on-ones with Gilbert Brule and Sidney Crosby and the other with heading off to the US for a chance, not only at a career in hockey, but a free university education, to boot.
But even in Marc's wildest dreams, he couldn't have imagined where he would end up: The University of Alabama-Huntsville.
Even so, Narduzzi says it wasn't a tough choice to make.
"It wasn't difficult at all deciding between university and Major Junior, I've had plenty of opportunity to go play Major Junior, but ever since I was a kid, my dad has always convinced me that university was a better way to go and I agree with him now that I've made my choice," Narduzzi said. "I've always wanted to get a degree and if hockey doesn't work out, I'm set for the rest of my life."
'Still developing down here'
College hockey has been a mainstay for universities like Maine, Michigan and two-time defending national champion Denver for decades, but hockey south of the Mason-Dixon is relatively new.
"The UAH Program started in 1979 as a club-level sport," said longtime Men's Hockey Head Coach Doug Ross. "We were, at the time, the only hockey program in the south. In the early-mid 80s, we went varsity as a (NCAA) Division I program, than down to Division II, than back to a D-I program. Club-level teams have really grown; there is a lot of hockey out there right now."
The Chargers also have the distinction of having one of the highest Canadian player ratios in the US. Over 75 percent of the UAH roster is Canadian-born, with four B.C.-born players among them.
"There are a lot of American players that are around other colleges, we're down here and hockey is still developing down here, sometimes we can't get the American players we want to recruit because other teams are after them," said Ross. "There is a lot of competition out there, so we get the best students we can, the best hockey players we can. We are always looking at southern-born players, my son played here, we might pick up a couple more next year but we'll just get what we can to help our team."
For a relatively small school (undergraduate enrollment of 8,000) , getting funding for recruiting trips 2,000 miles away can be difficult.
"We don't have a lot of funding, being in Alabama. We might make four to six trips at the most. We do a lot by correspondence or over the phone," Ross said. "We try to find out what [possible recruits] are interested in academically and what career they want to go towards, and if we can align ourselves up with students that are interested in engineering or education, we have those programs here, so if they want those programs and they want to go south, it's a good connection. If you live in Ontario, you can theoretically drive down here, it's long, about 14 hours, but you can do it. If you live out west, it's a different situation regarding travel, and not just visiting the campus, but going back for Christmas, coming back, going home for summer; there is a lot of expense."
With 58 NCAA Division I hockey schools available, including a pair of universities located in Alaska, a top-tier program in Colorado and an additional 67 teams at the Division III level, not to mention university hockey at schools like UBC being available, why would any B.C. kid choose Alabama-Huntsville?
"The difference between Canadian university hockey and the NCAA is quite a big change, most Canadian programs don't give scholarships and the tuition isn't as much as Canadian schools and down here in Alabama, I'm not paying any tuition, it's a fantastic education," Narduzzi said.
"If I played, for instance, for UBC, I would be paying a lot of my tuition. The opportunity is bigger here too. There are a lot more scouts and more NHL teams in the US than Canada, and the play is a higher quality down here. I talked to Harvard and a few other schools; money was an issue there though. I wanted to come and be comfortable and not have to pay off student loans. I came to visit and the atmosphere was fantastic. I love it down here."
You would be hard-pressed, however, to find two more disparate cultures in North America than those of Vancouver and the Alabama city amidst cotton fields.
"We're in what you call the Bible belt down here, the people down here are very nice, you get a lot of southern hospitality, but it is the Bible belt," Ross said. "But the weather is warmer."
"My first year, the first few weeks, it was interesting coming from Vancouver, where it's so multicultural, it's quite a big change, but everyone down here is really, really nice," Narduzzi said. "I go home during Christmas and that's about it.
"The thing that makes it worthwhile is that we're such a close-knit team. We have our own dorm building, it's the hockey building. It's like having 24 brothers."
One of those "brothers" for Narduzzi is fellow Canadian Grant Selinger. The two not only played together for the South Surrey Eagles, they shared an apartment in Surrey they still inhabit when home from Alabama.
"Plus," says Narduzzi, "there are other guys we know that we played in B.C. It's been easy. My parents are saying I'm starting to speak with a southern accent."
Andre Beaucage is a Vancouver-based journalist who helps manage content on The Tyee's site.