As adult hockey leagues continue to flourish across the country, we’ve seen geographical barriers fall as the sport continues to reach new players and transplants within the South.
Thanks to the popularity of organizations like the Nashville Predators, Carolina Hurricanes and Dallas Stars, along with the ability to beat the heat all year long, the North Alabama Hockey Association’s senior adult league rosters are packed season after season. At the NAHA, this includes players of all skill levels and experience taking to the ice.
Running a successful program involves more than just a pile of sticks and a few bags of recycled gear. Just ask Martin Kubaliak, NAHA director of hockey operations and a former AHL and international league player who—with the help of administrator Liz Aaron—has been instrumental in making the Huntsville-based NAHA one of the country’s best-organized adult programs.
The NAHA is fortunate to draw from many local and transplanted residents with a true passion for the sport. For example, a number of NAHA coaches and adult players played for the University of Alabama-Huntsville, then remained in the area after graduation. Or how tickets to see the SPHL-champion, Huntsville Havoc, sell out on a regular basis, and retired members of the Havoc coach and play locally. It has also been beneficial to have NASA and the nearby Anniston Army Depot Base bring hockey-loving fans from across the nation to the region.
“These players are excited to bring their knowledge to the area and help grow the sport,” shared Kubaliak. “We are lucky to have many hockey opportunities here in Huntsville that generate interest in playing the game.”
When players like these encourage coworkers and friends to bring their children out to try hockey, it provides an opportunity to get even more parents interested in NAHA’s Adult Development Program (ADP), and more chances for families to enjoy the sport together.
No matter their skill or experience level, ADP players can rent equipment and participate in six-week developmental sessions throughout the year.
“This is where true beginners can start,” added Kubaliak. “We teach them to skate but also encourage other adults who want to work on skills to come out.”
Next comes the Adult Development League (ADL), in which players are coached through game scenarios, helping them transition from skill development into competition. After ADL, players are encouraged to join the NAHA’s Senior Open League (SOL).
There, players of all skill levels and abilities can compete in summer and fall seasons. Summer play runs May through August while the fall season includes three divisions and more than a dozen games per team plus playoffs and end-of-season tourney action.
Division III is for skaters new to organized hockey. After a season or two, these SOL players can determine if they want to move to D-II or choose to stay playing D-III. Division II is the SOL’s largest division and is made up of former youth hockey players and those who have played adult rec hockey before. Division I offers the highest level of competition and features former professionals, semi-pro, college and travel league players.
“The ability to progress from not skating at all to playing in the SOL gives our players an achievable goal,” said Kubaliak. “Our coaches are very encouraging, and many of them play in the league as well. Eventually, a number of our players actually play on teams with the coaches who taught them to skate.”
All NAHA adult programs are sanctioned by USA Hockey, which offers Total Package Hockey, which runs the NAHA’s Player Development Programs. It is a distinct set of advantages in its quest to grow hockey’s popularity in the South.
“We have had a good experience over the years,” added Kubaliak. “The NAHA and the rink don’t have to worry about insurance coverage—that is a biggie—but we have received a good amount of adult equipment to use for our ADP program, which helps new players get to try hockey without facing the equipment barrier.”
And thanks to its lofty USA Hockey membership numbers, the NAHA has been awarded grants that help augment equipment and ice costs for its developmental programs, which has made hockey possible for even more Alabama skaters.
“If you’re thinking about playing, I encourage you to come out to the rink,” shared Kubaliak. “We have equipment and skates to get you started, and you are welcome to come out and borrow equipment and try the program free of charge before you commit. We want to make sure you enjoy your experience.”