'Feel like an NHL player for the weekend': Teams rave about Savannah Hockey Classic

·14 min read
Cameron Campbell is a senior defenseman on the University of Georgia Ice Dawgs club hockey team.
Cameron Campbell is a senior defenseman on the University of Georgia Ice Dawgs club hockey team.

The players who joined the college ice hockey teams last season had no real idea what they missed, but they're about to find out.

The Enmarket Savannah Hockey Classic returns for its 23rd edition on Friday and Saturday after the annual event was canceled in January 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Club teams from Georgia, Georgia Tech and Florida have been battling since 1999, and Florida State joined them in 2000 at the Savannah Civic Center. Title sponsors have changed over the years, but the classic format has basically remained the same: conference rivalry games the first night, in-state rivalries the second. The team with the best record (or through tiebreakers) skates away with the Thrasher Cup — a very distant cousin, perhaps, of the NHL's iconic Stanley Cup, but a fitting reward given the stakes and the setting, as the civic center regularly fills to at or near capacity for the final matches.

"The way we've always put it into words for the new guys is you feel like an NHL player for the weekend," said Georgia Ice Dawgs senior defenseman Cameron Campbell, noting interactions with fans. "You can sign anything, you can sign a napkin, and kids are fighting for it.

"We just tell the guys, get in shape over winter break because it's not a weekend you want to be sucking wind and out of shape. It's the best hockey experience you'll have."

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The crowds of upward of 5,500 and more, the rivalries played out on the ice (and in the stands) and the history written over the past 22 events have helped make the Savannah Hockey Classic traditionally their most important games despite the midseason appearance on the teams' schedules.

Andrew Kuczynski, a defenseman on the Florida Gators club ice hockey team, protects the area in front of the goaltender against the Tennessee Volunteers.
Andrew Kuczynski, a defenseman on the Florida Gators club ice hockey team, protects the area in front of the goaltender against the Tennessee Volunteers.

"It's always the main event," Florida defenseman Andrew Kuczynski said. "Everyone looks forward to it. We tell all the freshmen about it. It's really special because they treat us like a first-class organization.

"It's kind of rare for a club team. We go through a lot just to play our favorite sport. To go there and be treated so well — treated like professionals, really. We get our own (locker) room, great fan attendance, the most electric crowd we ever play in front of, for sure, throughout the whole year. It's a nice change to feel like we're in the big leagues for a little bit."

Kuczynski, a graduate student who has played in the event since 2017, contrasted their Savannah experience to a routine regular-season game at home or on the road for the Gators — who practice and play home games in Wesley Chapel, 1 hour and 40 minutes away from the Gainesville campus. It's no comparison, from fan support to rink conditions to access to the ice over two days.

"This is more like a professional (game), more time to prepare," he said. "We get a practice in the morning (Friday and Saturday), which is very rare. Not just rare — it never happens."

Event organizer the Savannah Sports Council has coined the phrase "Frozen Finale" for the 2022 edition, the last at the Savannah Civic Center. Enmarket Arena, currently completing construction, will be the new home starting in 2023.

But for those veteran players who were frozen out of a finale in 2021, they know exactly what they missed.

"One of the biggest disappointments the seniors shared was they missed out on Savannah for their senior season," Ice Dawgs head coach and general manager John Camp said. "As important as the (South Eastern Collegiate Hockey Conference) tournament is at the end of the year for playoffs — that's great, you're fighting for a championship — but there's something about Savannah."

The Savannah Morning News talked to representatives of the four hockey clubs about what it is about Savannah, their strongest memories and more leading up to this weekend.

The games will go on with health protocols in place for spectators, who in accordance with the city of Savannah's COVID-19 policies, must provide proof of vaccination (digital proof is permitted) or a negative test within 72 hours of entry.

Masks are required while inside the civic center for attendees age 2 and older, except when eating or drinking.

Free COVID-19 rapid tests will be offered on site each day starting at 2:30 p.m. for those unable to show proof of vaccine or a negative test.

Florida State's Ethan Terliamis

Now in his fourth season on the Seminoles, senior left wing Ethan Terliamis remembers the advice of upperclassmen before his first Savannah Hockey Classic: "Just get ready."

"I didn't fully grasp that until you got there, you hear the fans, people are doing pre- and post-game interviews," Terliamis said. "It kind of made you feel like a little hockey celebrity for three days. It's a really cool experience. I tell all of our new guys, especially this year we've got a lot of rookies coming in: This might very well be the most fun you'll ever have playing hockey, so just get ready."

Senior forward Ethan Terliamis of the Florida State ice hockey club.
Senior forward Ethan Terliamis of the Florida State ice hockey club.

Strong memory: "Two years ago we played Georgia Tech and were down two, three goals going into the third period. Georgia Tech shows out (in fan support) very well because it's in Georgia and not too far to travel. Their crowd was giving it to us. We were definitely feeling it. We were able to come out in that third period, bring it back, take it to overtime and win. That was great. I specifically remember it being so loud for that overtime, and when we scored, it went silent. Then we saw our fan base get up and get rowdy. That was a really cool moment."

On not having a home rink or any ice for weekly practice: "We get in a couple of ice practices per semester (in Jacksonville, two hours away), but for the most part, it's just a lot of conditioning and using our (Tallahassee) roller rink to the best of our abilities. It's not exactly the same, but it's the best that we've got, so we've got to make the most of it."

Georgia Tech's Min Kim

Yellow Jackets senior defenseman and team president Min Kim's hockey origin story sounds like something out of a comic book. His mother happened to see an ice hockey game on TV and was intrigued. She pledged that if she has a son, he will play hockey.

This was in Seoul, South Korea, not exactly the Canada of the Far East for ice hockey.

"That (story) is what I was told as a kid growing up," said Kim, whose family moved when he was 7 or 8 to Roswell, Georgia, not exactly the Canada of the Southeast for ice hockey.

"I tried other sports like every young kid does," he recalled. "Hockey just stuck to me for some reason. Something about it, the speed, the intensity. I don't think any other sport can replicate that feeling."

Defenseman Min Kim of the Georgia Tech club ice hockey team.
Defenseman Min Kim of the Georgia Tech club ice hockey team.

On rival UGA outnumbering Tech supporters in Savannah: "The Bulldogs fans definitely give it to us there. I'll admit it. You can quote me on it. We do hear them barking at us all the time. To be quite honest, that serves as more motivation for our guys."

Strongest memories: "The majority of those memories came my freshman year (2019) when we got first place. I somehow managed to score the game-winning goal of that game. That was honestly an unbelievable feeling. I don't think I'll score another goal that big for the rest of my life, besides maybe a men's league championship or something like that.

"At the end of the day, the memories that stick out with me are the things that happened off the ice. I remember getting to meet fans at the game, after the game — just interacting with them was very exciting."

Georgia Tech's head coach

Colin Roberts is in his fifth season coaching with the Yellow Jackets and second as the head coach. A native of Vancouver, British Columbia, the Canadian moved to Atlanta 10 years ago.

"I had no idea something like this existed in the South," he said of the Savannah Hockey Classic. "For me to find out about it when I came aboard with Tech, it really blew my mind.

Head coach Colin Roberts of the Georgia Tech club ice hockey team.
Head coach Colin Roberts of the Georgia Tech club ice hockey team.

"Savannah is the premier event of our year. Everybody on the team, from players to training staff to coaches to fans, everybody looks forward to Savannah. If we have a great showing in Savannah, we've had a good year. Yes, there are other things we want to accomplish, like winning our conference and going to nationals and beating rivals. The first thing we look at every year and the biggest priority for us is Savannah."

On his team's reaction to the unique atmosphere: "I keep a specific eye on the freshmen for the first little while in those couple of games because you can tell they're gripping the stick a little bit tight, there's a little bit of nerves there. That first night when they get in the building and it's packed, it's like something a lot of them have never seen."

On the big picture: "There are a lot of little kids that hang out there. I make sure we've got stuff to sign and give away to these kids. We want this to be special for them as well. It's not just about the players or the coaches or everybody involved. First and foremost, it's about putting on a good show and having good interaction with the fans. We try to do as much of that as possible."

Strong memory: "I recall being on the ice and we're getting handed the trophy (in 2019) and everybody's parading around with it, it's a big celebration. To see the Georgia fans walk out of there disappointed, but more importantly, our fans be proud of what we've done and be proud of their university and their team, was a very cool feeling and experience."

Florida's Connor Nicholson

A junior center and the club president, Florida's Connor Nicholson has seen the marked growth of the Gators' club hockey program recently, including the formation of two rosters for D2 (top flight) and D3 competition.

"My freshman year we had about one goalie," Nicholson said. "Now we had six goalies try out, so it's definitely been a lot different in terms of the level of talent and also the amount of kids that came out."

Connor Nicholson is a junior center on the Florida Gators club ice hockey team.
Connor Nicholson is a junior center on the Florida Gators club ice hockey team.

Strong memory: "Before I came to UF, it's funny. All I ever heard about was the Savannah Classic. Even (from) kids I talk to now. I met a kid the other day who is a senior in high school. He was telling me about how he wants to go to UF. 'So, what's the Savannah Classic like?' I was like, wow, it's kind of crazy how that's really a big question people are thinking about is the Savannah Classic.

"It's been really our favorite time of the year to get out there. It's such a well-run tournament. The people who run it do such a great job, make it as official as can be with getting in all those people. It's really awesome what they do there, and we feel they really try to put it at the professional-level caliber with their hospitality and everything."

On Savannah being special: "It's definitely one of the best atmospheres I've been exposed to in hockey. Even guys that have played in different NCAA programs have said, 'Wow, this is significantly better than any atmosphere I've been involved with playing throughout my career in the NCAA.' ... They've been able to speak on that in how it rivals some of these different atmospheres with all of the passionate fans that are there and how they really spotlight in on us and make us feel like we're in the NHL."

Georgia's Cameron Campbell

His parents went on their first date to a minor league hockey game in Mobile, Alabama. They got season tickets the next season.

Cameron Campbell was bound to lace on skates and become a hockey player.

He moved to Lawrenceville in Gwinnett County when he was about 8 and continued his hockey education. He played junior hockey for a while and eventually went to Kennesaw State before transferring to the University of Georgia for his spring 2019 semester.

"My first taste of UGA hockey was Savannah," said the senior defenseman, who knew some people associated with the UGA hockey team. "I knew what it was all about going in. But obviously, when you get there in front of that many fans and 75% of them are chanting 'UGA,' it was a heck of a way to kick off my college hockey career at UGA."

What they tell new players: "More than half of our roster has never even experienced Savannah. We usually tell them about how amazing the children's hospital visit is. There's no better way to kick off the weekend than that. Go in there and make some kid's day and put a smile on their face. It has just as much of an impact on us as it does them."

Georgia's head coach and GM

John Camp, the Georgia head coach and general manager, reminds his players that they're going to see him cry twice this season: When they graduate from college, and when they finish visiting the children's hospital in Savannah, one of their traditions at the annual Hockey Classic.

This year because of health protocols, Camp said, the team will drop off team items for the young patients but may not be able to visit with them in person at the Dwaine & Cynthia Willett Children’s Hospital of Savannah, which opened in 2021.

Camp said the itinerary Friday morning also includes a visit to the nearby Ronald McDonald House.

John Camp, head coach and general manager of the University of Georgia Ice Dawgs hockey team.
John Camp, head coach and general manager of the University of Georgia Ice Dawgs hockey team.

First impression of Savannah: "When I showed up for my first time at Savannah, it was like holy moly, this is everything plus more. This is so cool because I didn't expect this type of crowd in the South for a collegiate hockey game. The energy is unbelievable. The town of Savannah adds its own character to it as well.

"I think you can pick up that civic center and plop it in a lot of nice towns, but it doesn't end up with that same energy you get from Savannah. That's the really neat part. You have such a historic town. It's so robust with history and things for folks to do when parents come in. A lot of our fans come in. It's a nice destination town as well. It's really cool to see that many hockey aficionados from the South come together for a collegiate hockey series."

On the crowds: "A lot of these players have played at high levels but very rarely have they played in front of 5,500 people. That's something that really wakes people up. You see it on the parents' faces. I think the parents and the players had the same look I had on my face when I was first told about it. But once they experience it for the first time, they can't wait to come back."

Nathan Dominitz is the Sports Content Editor of the Savannah Morning News and savannahnow.com. Email him at ndominitz@savannahnow.com. Twitter: @NathanDominitz

Enmarket Savannah Hockey Classic schedule

Thrasher Cup titles

Georgia (9) — 2000, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2013, 2017, 2018, 2020

Georgia Tech (8) — 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2019

Florida (3) — 2010, 2014, 2015

Florida State (2) — 2008, 2016

* Seminoles replaced inaugural participant Tennessee in 2000.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Savannah Hockey Classic college teams UGA, Georgia Tech, Florida, FSU

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