(CSTV U-WIRE) GREENVILLE, N.C. — There was a time when ice hockey and the South mixed about as well as oil and water. It was as if there was a great dividing line (much like the Mason-Dixon) that separated the good hockey regions from the sub-par, or where hockey flat-out barely existed. Massachusetts, New York, Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, Vermont, basically anywhere in the northeast and Midwest, hockey thrived and was played on streets or patches of ice wherever an ample surface could be found. There was simply no room for hockey in the southern regions of the United States.
However, hockey has grown widespread across the country, visiting and taking hold in places that once would have never played host to the sport. One of those places is North Carolina.
Transplanted northerners in areas such as Cary, Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Durham, and Charlotte, N.C., (along with the Carolina Hurricanes of course) helped bring interest to the South and built the foundation for the popularity of hockey in the South as it is now. Until last year, ice hockey had no place in Greenville, S.C., with very little public interest and no legitimate facility to host a team. However, there was certainly interest in the area.
Enter Brent Falcon, Jordan Meyers, and Corey Fleitz (plus a new ice rink ‘Bladez on Ice’) and suddenly there was not only hockey in Greenville, there was a team at ECU.
“After I stopped playing with the [East Coast] Eagles, I had very few options if I still wanted to play,” said Falcon, who is the president of the team.
“You miss playing at a real competitive level with people your age. That’s a main reason that we are doing this. With what we heard around town, a lot of people were waiting for this to happen.”
Falcon, Meyers and Fleitz all played on the East Coast Eagles, one of the most prominent travel programs in the region. Falcon was teammates with both of them at different times, with Meyers moving on first and Fleitz coming in the season after.
Although all three players hail from different states than North Carolina (New York, Texas, Minnesota), all three had some of their most competitive experience in Raleigh. Fifteen out of 18 players on ECU…s roster are from out of state, including seven players from New York, three from Maryland, one from Minnesota, and another from Pennsylvania.
“I think Northern players have brought talent and a lot of interest in hockey to the southern regions and the sport grew a lot,” Falcon said.
“The popularity has taken hold and there is a better crop of Southern players year by year. I feel like there’s much more opportunity for kids in the Carolinas to play hockey than there was before.”
That opportunity turned to success this past year for Falcon and the other members of the newly formed ECU Ice Hockey team as the Pirates finished their first full year of action with a record of 14-7 overall, and 9-3 in the Southwest Division.
ECU hit the ice and didn’t look back during the fall semester, blazing a path to a 7-2 start by the beginning of December, with victories against VCU, Radford, Old Dominion, William and Mary, Christopher Newport and VMI.
The team was astounded by the amount of support the team received, as more than 300 fans showed up to watch opening night in Greenville on October 28 against Radford. The Pirates didn’t disappoint as they fought to a hard-earned 4-3 victory in a game rife with physical play and flaring tempers.
ECU carried that physical mentality throughout the year, relentlessly punishing opponents physically and wearing teams down. Despite their rough start to the spring semester (consecutive road losses to the ranked Clemson Tigers), ECU bounced back with two victories over Appalachian State and then one of the biggest emotional and symbolic wins of the season, a 4-2 victory over the Tar Heels of Chapel Hill. In front of a crowd of over a stifling 600 spectators, the ice hockey team became one of the few athletic programs at ECU to have topped UNC in any sport, varsity or club, in recent memory. The Pirates took that game in convincing fashion as they wore the Heels down, as they did with so many teams, with merciless physical play.
However, the Pirates didn’t boast just the ability to set the tone physically; they had their fair share of scoring talent as well.
Mike Ormsbee recorded 42 points in the regular season (24 goals, 18 assists), good for a top five finish in the conference. Ormsbee was dominant on the offensive side of the ice, which was never displayed more accurately than when he scored six goals in a single game against UNC-Wilmington.
Sophomore forward Corey Fleitz was second on the squad in points with 25 (9 G, 16 A), while Tyler Falcon, one brother of three on the ECU team (Brent and Ian) was second on the team in goals as he collected 12 for the season, and ranked third in points with 21.
After a rough 5-4 mark in the spring, ECU entered the Blue Ridge Hockey Conference Tournament sore, riddled with injuries, and all but outmatched, which makes what they did even more impressive.
The Pirates faced a familiar foe in the first round and came out victorious, 5-2, against VMI, a team they had split a series with earlier in the season. The win propelled ECU into the second round, where the pounded Clemson 8-3 in a blowout of one of the best teams in the tournament. Clemson had previously defeated the Bucs 6-5, and 7-3 in ECU’s opening spring series.
The team now found themselves staring an opportunity to win the BRHC Tournament dead in the face. In just their first year of existence, ECU had made a statement simply just getting to this point, and had a chance to shock the conference.
In a hard fought clash of two very talented teams, the Richmond Spiders, who had beaten ECU 7-3 in the fall semester, came out victorious once again by a score of 6-4. Disappointing loss nonetheless, the team was pleased with how their first season unfolded.
“We had really high expectations but we had no idea we’d gain the kind of support we got from the community,” said Falcon.
“We weren’t surprised with how the season turned out but we were definitely pleased that all our hard worked came to fruition at the end of the season.”
Looks like there’s room for hockey in the South after all.