When it comes to people’s perception of hockey hotbeds, Alabama usually isn’t at the top of the list. Regardless, youth hockey in Huntsville, Alabama, has continued to thrive.
The North Alabama Hockey Association (NAHA), based in Huntsville, has been in existence since 1973 and boasts an enrollment of between 400 to 450 players. The association has youth teams from 6U through 18U, along with a strong adult hockey program and a successful learn-to-skate program.
As a result, hockey is growing in Huntsville and throughout northern Alabama.
“We’ve got a pretty unique program for the South,” said Ryan McCormack, director of hockey operations for the NAHA. “For the amount of youth players and the size of our city that we have, we actually have a really, really strong program from a numbers standpoint.”
The NAHA’s 18U Midget Elite team, the Point Mallard Ducks, competes with an independent schedule that includes opponents from from Atlanta, Nashville and St. Louis, among other cities.
One other benefit the young skaters in the NAHA have is being in the same city as both a professional team — the Huntsville Havoc of the Southern Professional Hockey League — and a NCAA Division I hockey program, the University of Alabama-Huntsville Chargers.
Not only do the kids in the NAHA get to skate at the Von Braun Center during intermission of Havoc and Chargers games, they also have role models. One of those role models is UAH sophomore Josh Kestner, the lone Alabama native on the Chargers roster. He grew up in Huntsville and made his way through the ranks of the NAHA en route to playing NCAA Division I hockey.
“It gives these guys a local hero to look forward to when they go to games,” said McCormack, who played for UAH from 1997–2001.
The NAHA is a USA Hockey member and falls under the umbrella of the Southern Amateur Hockey Association. Teams in the SAHA come from Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, as well as Alabama. According to McCormack, the NAHA is the largest association among all SAHA members.
The Atlanta area may produce more overall hockey players than other regions of the SAHA, but the Huntsville Amateur Hockey Association is proud of the membership numbers it has produced over the years – and has experienced recent growth.
“We actually have a really, really good thing going on here because of all the hockey available to the kids and the facilities we have,” McCormack said. “One thing that sets us aside from everybody in this area is the focus on the grassroots.”
That grassroots approach has meant plenty of school visits in the Huntsville area by the NAHA’s hockey directors. The association provides equipment to the directors to take with them to the schools as they introduce young kids in Alabama to the sport of hockey. The NAHA has its own Try Hockey for Free program, with the ultimate goal of transitioning those kids into the learn-to-play program.
“This is the first year where we’ve really concentrated on that with the school visits,” McCormack said. “We’ve seen an increase in numbers just from that.”
On its website, the North Alabama Hockey Association proclaims Huntsville as the “Hockey Capital of the South.” McCormack and the rest of the NAHA — including numerous volunteers — are doing their part to make that statement true.
“Our adults are under the same program, so we have cohesion top to bottom, whereas most associations, the adults function on their own. In our situation, they’re part of the program,” McCormack said. “We’ve got a lot of good people that are wanting hockey to continue to move forward and progress.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.