Alabama hockey struggles to keep Iron Cup match up aliveBy Molly Catherine Walsh | 04/17/2017 10:04am
Alabama hockey players greet fans before steppping onto the ice. Photo courtesy of Brian Ogden
Alabama sophomore Griffin Butler grew up in Huntsville, and for him, the Alabama vs. Auburn rivalry was the pinnacle of any sporting event. Soon after Butler learned to walk he learned to skate, following in his oldest brother’s footsteps.
“UAH [The University of Alabama at Huntsville] has an NCAA Division I hockey program there, and when my oldest brother was growing up he used to go to the games and watch them play, and he’d have a lot of fun there and one day my dad took him to public skate and he just loved it and so my brother started playing and then they got me into it,“ Butler said.
Butler’s oldest brother also attended The University of Alabama and played center for the hockey team in 2012 alongside Bierchen. Bierchen graduated from Alabama in 2012 where he played on the team as goalie and was named the 2012 SECHC Tournament MVP.
After graduation, Bierchen was an assistant coach at SUNY-Canton (NCAA Division III) and then became an assistant coach for the Columbus Cottonmouths (Southern Professional Hockey League). Bierchen coached the SPHL Rookie of the Year, SPHL League MVP and a two-time Olympic Gold Medalist during his time in Columbus. He was hired as head coach for Alabama in April 2016.
“Anytime you have the opportunity to come back to your alma mater is always special and it’s been fun to jump back into things and then take the group of guys that we have and then continue to build off of what’s been built over the last 11 years,” Bierchen said.
The Alabama hockey team faced several obstacles before they faced Auburn this year. As the team attempted to put this event together, it forced almost everyone on the team to wear several hats at once. Last year, there was a booster club to help sell tickets, get security and logistics sorted out but this year, the back-to-back games were put into motion merely days before they were set to happen, leaving the Alabama hockey team scrambling to put it together all by themselves.
Part of the problem was that the Pelham Civic Complex was under construction for months, and the ice was barely finished in time for the first match-up on Friday night.
In a meeting in September, Pelham mayor Gary Waters told Bierchen the rink would be finished by early December. For Alabama, that was perfect since their first practice after winter break wouldn’t be until Jan. 2 regardless.
In the weeks after that September meeting, the Alabama hockey team continuously attempted to submit their practice schedule to the Civic Complex in order to reserve ice time, only to be told week after week that there were more delays and they should come back next week.
This went on for four or five months, Bierchen said.
“We understand that with construction there can be delays,” 2017 Alabama hockey captain and MVP Jon Lovorn said. “On both sides we tried to do the best to work with what we had. I can’t really say too much about it.”
On Jan. 3, The Shelby County Reporter published an article titled The article claimed the Alabama hockey team failed to have proper communication in any form with the Civic Complex and that was why they had no practice time setup throughout the past few months.
For alternate reasons, the Auburn Tigers decided to hesitate on agreeing to play the Crimson Tide. The Tigers waited so long to commit to the game that it wasn’t official until the Tuesday night before the games were set to happen. This sent Alabama into a tailspin of trying to coordinate this event to happen flawlessly within a matter of days.
“We just didn’t have a finished contract for the games and for what was going to happen revenue wise, with the proceeds,” Auburn hockey head coach Marcel Richard said. We just needed to make sure Auburn got a cut of the proceeds. Alabama has a more established program; they’re obviously Division I and when you’re a Division III team in the middle of the pack it’s hard to go to Pelham and take a whooping, so we just wanted to make sure everything was done contractually and it was also about whether the kids wanted to go and play or not as well.”
On Friday, Bierchen and the Auburn coaching staff connected for a reason other than the Iron Cup. Although there was tension between the teams, the coaches on both sides shared ties to the Columbus Cottonmouths. Richard played on the Cottonmouths from 1996-2000 and Bierchen was an assistant coach for the snakes. On the night of Jan. 19, the snakes were traveling to Illinois when their bus ran off the road and into a ditch.
“After the bus crash on Thursday it was interesting that 24 hours later we were all together in the same building. That was actually mostly what we talked about, just ‘hey what have you heard?’ ” Bierchen said. “I guess getting to be in the same building and then be a part of a special rivalry when it comes to Alabama and Auburn, but also getting to talk and support each other when that kind of—I don’t want to call it a tragedy because everybody walked away with their lives—but it was pretty scary so it was cool that all got to represent the Columbus Cottonmouths.”
Alabama won both games this year, 10-0 on Friday night and 8-3 on Saturday night, which made them Iron Cup Champions yet again. Richard would like to see the hockey rivalry become more competitive, and soon, before it’s too late for the Auburn program.
“I think both teams have improved and I would like it to be a better rivalry than it is but so far recruiting-wise and talent-wise we haven’t been able to compete score-wise with Alabama,” Richard said. “I hope and I’m trying to make it better so that it’s not a waste of time. Obviously it’s good for the kids and the fans but it’s got to be competitive or else fans won’t come out and watch.”
Despite the frustrations that the Alabama hockey team faced leading up to the Iron Cup, it doesn’t take away from the sweetness of an Alabama victory against Auburn for Griffin Butler, a lifelong Alabama fan.
“Growing up, that’s the game you always hear of; that’s the game you wanted to see: Alabama vs. Auburn, just whatever was on; that was the biggest game for whatever sport it was, no matter what. Other than national championships, maybe,” Butler said.