Frozen Finley turnout makes case for college hockey in NC

An estimated 24,000-plus fans attended the NC State-UNC club hockey outdoor game on Feb. 20

Members of the NC State Icepack celebrate a goal during their 7-3 win over UNC in the Frozen Finley outdoor game at Carter-Finley Stadium on Feb. 20. (Stan Gilliland / For North State Journal)

RALEIGH — When asked on Feb. 13, five days before the Stadium Series outdoor game at Carter-Finley Stadium, if he had considered adding hockey as a Division I men’s and women’s sport, NC State Director of Athletics Boo Corrigan was quick to move on to other topics.

“You know what, we’ve got 8 million other things going on right now,” he said. “I’m not sure where that one stands.”

It may not be as many as 8 million, but he got about 24,000 reasons to rethink his position a week later.

For how successful the Feb. 18 NHL Stadium Series game between the Hurricanes and Capitals was, nothing was as shocking as the turnout for the NC State-UNC club hockey outdoor game on that same ice two days later.

“It shows that it would work, but there’s a long road to get there,” said Tim Healy, coach of the NC State Icepack, following his team’s 7-3 win over the Tar Heels in front of an estimated 24,000 fans.

It’s not, however, a new path. The foundation has been laid during the Hurricanes’ 25 years in the state, and there might not be any better illustration of that than the Icepack.

“I’m from Raleigh,” Icepack freshman forward Zach Herman said after scoring a hat trick in the game dubbed Frozen Finley. “I’m a business major at State. I grew up in this area. I played hockey here my whole life, except for one year.”

NC State Icepack forwards Chase Williams (24) and Alex Fong (13) try to score on UNC goalie Joel Hughes during the Frozen Finley game on Feb. 20. (Stan Gilliland / For North State Journal)

That one year, a gap year after he graduated from Middle Creek High School in Apex, was spent playing for the Maine Nordiques travel team. The 19-year-old returned from New England to attend NC State — and with it came a place to continue his hockey career on the school’s club hockey team.

“I played hockey my whole life, and I’ve never had as much fun as this year,” Herman said of joining the Icepack, which plays in the American Collegiate Hockey Association. “You know, being a student and being able to play — obviously my hope and I think everybody’s hope is (that) tonight kind of set the groundwork for NC State hockey. We definitely want to make a name for ourselves and take this to the next level.

“I think Raleigh has got to be one of the fastest-growing hockey markets right now. I don’t think it’s slowing down.”

It starts with players like Herman, who benefited from the Hurricanes increasing the availability of hockey in North Carolina and were also able to learn from NHL players in the area’s youth programs. Several of those players participated in the Hurricanes Alumni Game last Monday evening and then hung around to watch the Icepack and Tar Heels play.

“The thing is, 75% of our players are from North Carolina,” Healy said of the Icepack. “Which means most of our players have been coached by a lot of those alumni: Jesse Boulerice, Steve Rice, Rod Brind’Amour — all those guys.

“Bates Battaglia was out at First Goal (the Hurricanes’ introductory youth hockey program) when my daughters were going through it. So [those are] the guys that coached our kids, the ones that have forgotten more about hockey than I’ll ever know by playing in the NHL.”

And the legacy those former players have left is about more than the Hurricanes’ wins and losses or the banners hanging in next door’s PNC Arena rafters.

Yes, the NHL coming to Raleigh made hockey fans of many North Carolinians. But the biggest impact comes in the form of all the adolescents, teenagers and young adults who have grown up playing the sport.

There have been kids of former Hurricanes, some even born in North Carolina, who have made it to the NHL. Next, there will be players without an NHL dad who will reach the league after having played their youth hockey in the Triangle.

Maybe they will even play their college hockey here.

“That can be a topic for another day, but it’s pretty clear,” Healy said. “If you build it, they’ll come.”

The 24,000-plus fan turnout for Frozen Finley showed hockey is here to stay. The next step is convincing people like Corrigan that it’s worth investing in.