Sterling Brown grew up in Florence and got an early indoctrination into playing hockey. His father was the team dentist for the Pee Dee Pride, and ECHL franchise. Because of that, he began playing at 5 years old even though hockey was and still is a sport that many people think of as something that our neighbors to the north play.
Andrew Swint spent most of his childhood in Chicago before moving to Fort Mill when he was 14 years old. He didnt seriously play hockey until he moved to South Carolina in the seventh grade.
Two odd cases, but those two players are cornerstones for the South Carolina Hockey team, a club program that has been around since 2006.
Its something I have always enjoyed, Brown said. We mainly have guys from the North but we have about four or five guys from the South that have come up playing junior hockey and really enjoy it. Some guys had chances to go north and play at schools that actually play NCAA hockey, but they wanted to stay close to home and experience the college life at an SEC school with everything it has to offer.
South Carolina plays in the Southeastern Collegiate Hockey Conference (SECHC), which consists of 10 members Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Vanderbilt along with the Gamecocks.
Pretty heady stuff for a sport in this region of the country that normally flies under the radar.
We have about 45-60 guys try out and the talent level is higher than what you might expect to see, second-year USC coach Brian Bauman said. Your average high school players even from up north couldnt come out and play at this level. I think if people gave it a chance, they would be surprised to see what we have to offer.
This was a big weekend for the Gamecocks. They played in the Cobblestone Hockey Tournament in Savannah, Ga., against rivals Clemson and Georgia as well as Auburn at the Savannah Civic Center.
Last year, USC played both Clemson and Georgia in Savannah and each contest drew nearly 5,000 fans.
The crowds last year were great, Swint, a senior, said. Its exciting for us to play in that type of atmosphere. Club hockey has a lot of potential for growth and the talent level is getting better and better every year.
With the Columbia Inferno closing up shop several years ago and the NHL currently in a lockout, South Carolina hockey is the only game in town. They play their home matches at the Plex Complex in Irmo and the crowds have increasingly gotten larger. The home matches are promoted around campus with posters and fliers, and Brown, a freshman, said more and more friends are beginning to inquire about it.
Bauman is not sure how much larger hockey can become in the South. It competes with football, and soccer is becoming more popular each season. They also have to compete with the recent advent of fall baseball. Both Brown and Swint played baseball growing up but always found time to fit hockey into their schedules.
Both players agree that the reason more kids in the South dont become involved is the lack of ice time. There arent many places to practice and when somewhere is found, it might come at odd hours. The USC team usually practices weeknights at 10:15 p.m. because that is the only time they can get the ice.
Its also an expensive venture because of the equipment involved.
But Brown said its an experience he wouldnt trade.
Ive made a lot of friends because it is such a tight-knit community, he said. Its something we all do because we love it. It was difficult getting started playing in the South but it is something I am thankful I stuck with. I couldnt imagine doing anything else.