By Hunter Sheldon
A fan-favorite Kentucky club sport makes its return this weekend.
Kentucky hockey will welcome Tennessee to the Lexington Ice Center on Friday for the first of two games to kick off the 2021-2022 campaign.
Returning with the Wildcats is “Midnight Mayhem,” a tradition that began in the 1980’s, where the puck doesn’t touch the ice until the clock strikes 12.
“It’s an event, it’s midnight mayhem. It is one of the top 10 things to do if you are a UK student,” UK hockey coach Tim Pergram said.
Ironically, playing club hockey at midnight in Kentucky is going to be the most normal thing about this season for Pergram and his players.
On July 19, dozens of firefighters responded to a large fire at the Lexington Ice Center that destroyed part of the building — including one of the two rinks. The main building of the center was untouched.
With only one rink available and skating season rapidly approaching, the Wildcats would now have to share usage of the main rink with the public, as well as the youth and adult hockey leagues in Lexington.
Kentucky did not play hockey last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic and had their 2021-2022 season flash before their eyes, wondering if they would be able to maneuver around the sparse availability of their home ice.
“We were already looking at, would we have to bus to another rink? Would we have to practice only one day a week in Louisville or Cincinnati? There were going to be a lot of calls,” Pergram said.
Pergram and the ice center found a way to accommodate the Cats, although calling for some changes to the practice schedule.
A bright and early call time of 5:45 a.m. sets the scene for the team’s practices on Mondays and Wednesdays. While inconvenient, the players understand that they must make the best out of a bad situation.
“Everyone recognizes we don’t really have an option. It’s kind of sink or swim,” senior winger Gary Eastlack said. “We can either get up and work together to make each other better, or we can be pouty about it. We all know everyone is tired, we try to get our legs loose as quick as we can and get better every morning.”
An early morning is just the start of a long day for these student athletes. After practice ends around 7:15 a.m., the players head back to campus for class, followed by strength and conditioning in the early evening, leaving little to no free time for anything besides studying or getting some sleep.
“There is a lot going on in Lexington, you have to worry about the youth programs and other people and now with one rink, it was a little nerve racking as to how seriously we were going to be able to take this season,” junior defenseman Tim Burke said.
Fortunately, the team didn’t have to worry about any scheduling conflicts when planning games in Lexington this season. The midnight puck drop is an experience like no other, and although the team is not funded and promoted by the university, Big Blue Nation still shows out in bulk.
“It’s an unreal atmosphere. Everyone is loud, everyone is excited,” Eastlack said. “Other teams think they look forward to coming in and playing us because of the big crowd, and about five minutes in, I don’t think they’re enjoying it as much as they thought.”
The Lexington Ice Center, also known as the Barn, can sell up to 500 tickets on a game night. The rink and the stands leave little space, making sold-out games a compact, ear-splitting experience that the players love.
“It’s intense, teams hate to play here and we love our fans. We’ll do anything for them and we want to win every night for them,” senior defenseman Zack Bartuce said.
While the fans come to support the team whether they are filling the net with goals or not, the Wildcats are ready to put their best product on the ice.
Coach Pergram, who is entering his fifth season as head coach, is prepared for what could be his “best team in five years.”
“We have a great freshman class that has come in for this year and a sophomore class that hasn’t played a game yet. We have a lot of talent,” Pergram said. “There’s some very talented players out there this year. Then we’ve got some upperclassmen that have been in the program for a couple of years. It’s going to be thrilling.”
Kentucky competes in the Tri-State Collegiate Hockey League, which is a part of the southeast region of the second division of the American Collegiate Hockey Association. The league consists of 10 teams, including UK rivals Indiana and Louisville.
The end of the season will see eight of the 10 teams advance to a league tournament, with the winner of the tournament earning an automatic bid tothe ACHA Division II Southeast Regional tournament held in late February. Four teams from the regional tournament will qualify for the ACHA Division II National Tournament for a chance at a national championship.
For Kentucky, this season comes with high expectations.
“Nationals are the goal this year,” sophomore center Brett Quinn said. “With the team that we have, I think it’s a very realistic goal and I can’t wait to see what we can do.”
The Wildcats have reached the regional stage in years past but will look to take the next step this season behind coach Pergram’s fast-paced offense.
“We’re going to be a very fast team, we pressure the puck and play high tempo, we are a very offensive team,” Pergram said.
UK will have a chance to show off their firepower on Friday against the Volunteers, a team they beat 15-0 the last time they squared off.
While the team is looking forward to playing their first game since the 2019-2020 season, they want nothing more than to be able to put on a show in front of BBN once again.
“There’s nothing like having hundreds of people packed in here at midnight. Being the best hockey team in Kentucky, we love drawing the attention,” Burke said. “It’s a rowdy, exciting time.”
(Originally published at http://www.kykernel.com/a-rowdy-exciting-time-hockey-returns-to-lexington-following-pandemic-fire/article_06f638fa-118f-11ec-b56e-f3c8d084bdce.html)