Three invitations to the national playoffs. A trip to the regional competition five out of the past six years they’ve played. Conference runners-up for the 2016-17 season.
The University of Mississippi hockey team has garnered no shortage of accomplishments since they first hit the ice in 2009, but their level of recognition is still lagging.
“There are so many people around here who don’t even know we have a hockey team,” team president Tommy Diver said. “I found out about the team because my brother came here to play a couple of years before me, and he only found out from something he saw on social media. We’d been playing since we were kids up in Nashville.”
Finding high-quality players like the left wing position Diver brothers to man the team is an obsession for coach Dan Armstrong, but it’s not as challenging as it sounds. The New Jersey native regularly recruits high-level junior hockey players from states as far away as Massachusetts, Ohio and Michigan to fill the ranks.
“They come to visit and don’t want to leave because the Ole Miss experience sells itself to our players,” Armstrong said. “One of our rules is no games or out-of-town travel on SEC home football weekends, so the guys can set up the team tent on the Walk of Champions together. We want them to want to be here as students first and foremost. The ice, they have to really want.”
Hockey is a club sport at Ole Miss, which means it is a player-run organization. And while that may sound like a pastime that’s all fun and games, there are some drawbacks to playing for a team that’s not backed by the NCAA.
The team is part of the American Collegiate Hockey Association, which has its own Southeastern Collegiate Hockey Conference with 10 teams that compete in Division III of the ACHA; however, there are no scholarships for playing club hockey at Ole Miss. In fact, players have to pay dues just to be a part of the team. Most of the players store their equipment, which they must provide for themselves, in their dorm rooms because there is no set locker room on campus. Members must also drive themselves to and from home games and their twice-weekly practices at the Mid-South Ice House in Olive Branch.
Some SEC club teams (such as the University of Florida team) have booster clubs, new ice rinks with season-ticket holders, and television networks dedicated to live video streaming of team play – but that level of support is rare in the South.
“I’m still surprised by how little the South has embraced the sport because of how good some of the teams are,” Armstrong said. “Club really is a four-letter word here. People use it like it means these guys don’t work as hard because when they hear it, they think it sounds like a couple of people getting together to play around after school. These are some of the hardest-working players I’ve known. With our guys, you get varsity-level play every time they’re on the ice.”
Promoting that hard work falls back on the club. The 30 full-time students on the team and their three coaches, all of whom have day jobs, work together to publicize their bouts in the community. Armstrong even built the team website in his off time. Social media has become the team’s best friend, with more than 3,000 fan followers getting updates on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
The season runs August-March with around 25 games, depending on the post-season play.
Although the team is in a rebuilding year – seven seniors graduated last May – their record was still a solid 9-5-1 at press time. Last year they were the SEC runners-up after taking on three of their biggest rivals, beating out
Arkansas and Vanderbilt to get to the final before losing to Georgia.
Their goal is to make it to regionals again this year, drawing on the experienced leadership of their remaining seniors and the other talent in their mix. They hope to soon be back at nationals – and with more fans in the stands.
“If you ever get the chance to see a game live, you’ll suddenly understand why every hockey fan you’ve met is such a huge fan,” Armstrong said. “These guys will make you love Ole Miss because you can tell they love the game and the school they’re playing for.”
Melanie Crownover and Invitation Oxford Magazine
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