By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Mississippi State University’s ice hockey team paid a visit to Tupelo Middle School physical education classes on Jan. 18.
Between classes, Ice Dawgs players shot orange street hockey balls into a small net, deftly passing and controlling the off-ice puck with their battered hockey sticks.
As the kids filed into the TMS gym from the clamorous hallways, one of them asked, “Are they having a golf game today?”
Of all the sports Northeast Mississippi children grow up playing, hockey doesn’t usually make the list. But the Ice Dawgs are looking to change that.
“You’d be surprised how much it’s growing around here,” said team member Cole Kulbek. “Getting the youth interested is key. Maybe these kids won’t go out and start a hockey team, but maybe they will at least stop and watch hockey on TV when they see it.”
Kulbek said areas like Nashville and Birmingham are becoming large hubs for hockey in the South. In the state, interest in the sport is largely concentrated on the coast. Of the four Ice Dawgs, only one calls Mississippi home: Scott Polley of Biloxi.
“At home we play a lot of inline, on rollerblades. There hasn’t been much actual ice hockey attention since the Tupelo T-Rex team,” he said. “MSU’s team is relatively new, and since we started in 2008, we have definitely seen an increase in crowd attendance.”
The other members hail from New York, Maine and Illinois. Along with Kulbek, Ice Dawg Tim Barclay found his way south after enlisting in the Air Force.
“I was assigned to the Columbus Air Force Base when the founder of the team approached me and asked if I would be interested, then after the Air Force, MSU worked out, and I got to come play,” Barclay said.
The team competes on the club level, playing eight regular-season division games against other Southeastern Conference schools, as well as non-conference teams, such as the University of Memphis. Most of their in-conference games are played at Tupelo’s BancorpSouth Arena. Some of their opponents also are fledgling teams, but others are far more experienced, like the University of Tennessee’s Ice Vols, who have been playing since the 1960s.
TMS PE teacher Ty Culpepper said his physical education unit on floor hockey was a refreshing change for his students.
“It’s so new to them, and it is such an active sport,” he said. “It really opens their eyes to something new. Some kids who may not be as skilled at basketball or other sports we play can surprise themselves by finding a natural knack for hockey.”
The players imparted wisdom to the middle-schoolers, like how important it is to be on time for practice, as well as how team members have to maintain a 3.0 GPA to play. On the ice, they advised the students to keep their head at all times and not to let other players provoke them into getting a penalty.
“Let the other team talk all they want, the only thing that matters is what your team is doing,” Kulbek said.
Barclay added, “The referees don’t always catch the first foul, but they always catch the second.”
And with that, the kids took to the court with the Ice Dawgs, careful to keep their sticks down and heads up.