The Auburn Ice Hockey Club skates to nationals and hopes to fund its future

Students Ryan Scott, Katey Zencuch (rear), Cam Denk and Jack Sparago of the Auburn Ice Hockey Club.

As members of the Auburn Ice Hockey Club sit down to talk, there is some light moaning and groaning.

“Man, I’m sore,” says Jack Sparago, a junior in business administration.

“So sore,” echoes junior mechanical engineering major Cam Denk. “My feet and ankles hurt.”

For others it’s hips and shoulders. But before anyone continues, Sparago ends the complaining with a common refrain.
“That’s hockey,” he says. That is hockey. Ice hockey at Auburn University.

Fresh off a successful trip to the 2023 nationals and a 13hour return car ride, you’ll forgive if they are moving slowly. What’s not moving slowly, however, is the rise of hockey at Auburn and the club’s success.

The team finished its 2022-23 season 13-9-4 overall and went 2-1 at the Collegiate Hockey Federation’s national championship tournament in West Chester, Penn. Playing three games from March 10-15, the skating Tigers notched upset wins over Ramapo College and Neumann College and lost a close game to the University of Tampa.

“So we sat down at the beginning of the season this year and said, ‘You know, if we make the tournament and we get invited, we’re going to go,’” said Denk, the club’s president-elect and the goalie.

But the hardest part was raising the money to get there. So the team set up a GoFundMe to raise money for road trips, uniforms and all the other necessities of hockey life. They raised almost $8,000.

Harder still were injuries throughout the season, which runs from August to March, that left the team with only 18 skaters at nationals, a small number that limits substitutions in a highly physical sport. The season will still go down as one of the best and one they all hope will be a steppingstone for even greater success.

The team practices and plays their games in Columbus, Ga.

The First Period

The Auburn Ice Hockey Club’s origins can be traced back to 1979. After students from Auburn and the University of Alabama played an exhibition game as a promotion for the World Hockey Association’s Birmingham Bulls, journalism student Emory Stapleton decided he wanted to start a full-time club team. The Tigers played their inaugural season with the Southern Collegiate Hockey Association in 1980-81.

Current Coach Ryan Rutz is a collegiate national champion and is building a winning culture for the team that can consistently compete in the College Hockey South division, where Auburn and 28 other non-varsity SEC and southern schools compete.

Still, getting people to the games can be a challenge. Most people are surprised to learn that Auburn plays ice hockey, despite the team often tabling on the concourse and actively promoting their games on social media.

Katey Zencuch, a junior in exercise science, is on the team’s staff. She says playing in Columbus, Ga. is one of the hardest challenges.

“Whenever we are tabling on the concourse, there are lots of people who are interested in hockey because they’re from the North, or they grew up watching it. And they want to come to games but then realize they must drive 45 minutes. It’s hard.”

The team got a boost earlier this season when President Roberts and the first lady made a trip to the Florida game. Denk says he made a stick save and then experienced one of the highlights of his playing career.

“I looked over and President Roberts was going crazy up against the glass, like he was losing his mind. We really appreciated that.”

For many students who come to Auburn from up north or grew up loving the sport, being able to play hockey at Auburn is a big draw and a great way to meet people. It can be an exhilarating, bone-crushing reminder of home.

Ryan Scott, a senior in finance, defenseman and this year’s team president, grew up in Florida and Birmingham and learned to love the game from his Detroit-born dad.

“I just fell in love with the game and always wanted to play growing up the entire time,” Scott said. “Being a part of something greater than yourself and the relationships you build within this team have been great for me and my college experience.”

But with no local rink or pro shops to provide services like sharpening your skates, every member of the team must truly love the sport to play it. Not only do they have to drive to practice at the Columbus Ice Rink, but they cannot get on the ice until after 10 p.m. And that trip to nationals? That was their spring break. And now there are rumors that Athens is getting an on-campus rink. Still, no one on the team or staff would have it any other way.

“There’s nothing better than putting on your helmet and strapping up with your brothers and going to war against another school,” Sparago said. “It’s just awesome, no matter what happens in the game. You’re skating toward a kid in an Alabama logo, and you just put a shoulder in his chest and knock him f lying into the boards. Nothing beats that.”

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