From The Lexington Herald Leader
By Josh Moore
Waking up for a 5:30 a.m. practice isn’t atypical for most athletes at the University of Kentucky. Most look forward to it; you don’t become a scholarship athlete in the Southeastern Conference without having a work ethic that matches, or exceeds, your natural gifts.
That includes UK’s hockey team members, none of whom are on athletics scholarships and whose primary affiliation with the SEC happens at football games when they’re chanting it from the bleachers toward inferior competition. Their commitment to the university squad — officially recognized as a club team but not sanctioned or supported financially by the school’s athletics department — is done without any return on their investment beyond the thrill of competition, cheers from their own fans and the typical benefits one gets from exercising.
It’d be less grueling to wake up at 5:30 a.m. for a jog than to make the trek to the Lexington Ice Center for a two-hour practice before class, though. A lot of college athletes say they do what they do for the love of the sport; if that utterance was ever to be accepted without dispute, it would be when it comes out of the mouth of a guy like Drew Carlson, a sophomore who played high school hockey is his native Illinois but only learned about UK’s team just two weeks before he enrolled in 2020. He made it onto the roster following an open-tryout window.
“It would be nice to have funding and all that, but we play ‘cause we love hockey,” Carlson said. “No one’s gonna stop loving it. That’s about it. It’s worth it, I think, for everyone.”
Carlson’s path to the Kentucky hockey team, you’d think, is the normal one; you’d be wrong. While all of UK’s players have to go through tryouts, per club policy, many of them were recruited from the prep and junior hockey ranks to play for the program by its coaching staff, all volunteers with regular day jobs. Most of the advance player-scouting falls on the shoulders of assistant Clay Pergram, who in 2009 made state history as the first Kentuckian to be drafted into a developmental league out of high school (he played for Paul Laurence Dunbar).
Clay’s father, Tim Pergram, assumed head-coaching responsibilities in 2017. The UK program, which played its inaugural season in the 1984-85 school year, was fresh off one of its worst campaigns in history (3-20) and decades of fervent fan support started to wane. Tim in the time since he took over has gotten Kentucky back to winning form and, arguably more importantly, made UK hockey games once again a must-attend event for any student who can get in.
And oh, do they attend. Kentucky’s “barn,” officially, has a capacity of about 500. If fewer than 1,000 were in the Lexington Ice Center for the Wildcats’ game against rival Louisville in late January, it wasn’t much fewer. At least 200 people were turned away an hour before the puck dropped due to overflow concerns.
“We turn out a good product,” Tim Pergram said. “The fans are phenomenal. They’re incredible.”
The coldest party in Kentucky officially starts around midnight at 560 Eureka Springs Drive, but you’d better be there well before that if you actually want to partake.
A basketball gym adjacent to the rink housed many fans from 9-degree temperatures outside as they waited to buy their tickets to the UK-U of L tilt. People started lining up at 9 p.m., about three hours before game time and more than two hours before the teams could even take the ice. A public-skate window precedes most UK home games, so the Cats and Cards started warming up about 30-40 minutes before their first face-off.
UK is an agreeable, and grateful, tenant of the Lexington Ice Center. When the venue’s second, smaller rink burned down last summer, the Wildcats agreed to move their practice schedule around to best accommodate other teams. In addition to the general public, the Central Kentucky Hockey Association’s Thoroughbreds youth teams and adult-league teams also share the venue, one of just four indoor ice rinks in the state. The locker rooms, adorned in UK colors, are non-exclusive, too.
So, Kentucky practices at 5:30 a.m. on a Wednesday and 9:30 p.m. on a Thursday to prepare for a pair of games each weekend that could start at just about any hour on the clock. Two-game home stands aren’t uncommon but neither are home-and-homes that see UK’s players and coaches leave the venue after 3 a.m. and hit the road after just a few hours of sleep. The return game against Louisville wasn’t until 7 p.m. later that same Saturday, but there were a couple of instances this season when the Cats (and their opponents) had to turn around and play a 1 p.m. game following a few hours of travel.
Home games, with rare exceptions, begin at or right after midnight. The team has tinkered with the late-night start, which dates back to the club’s inaugural season, by moving it up a couple hours, but the crowd just isn’t the same. Midnight madness is baked into the team’s culture.
“Everybody knows we play at midnight,” said Ryan Van Daniker, the team’s general manager. “Our opponents, they know it, they hate it. It’s our sweet spot. You feel like going to bed, and we’re just getting ready.”
Three volunteers, armed with a Square reader and flanked by a handful of security guards, were the final barrier between an army of fans and their favorite hockey team. Several young men rode upon the shoulders of their peers, leading a chant — “Let us in! Let us in! Let us in!” — as credit cards and dollar bills of every legal denomination exchanged hands as quickly as possible. There was never a prayer it’d be fast enough.
It was raucous, arguably even intimidating, though not enough for at least one of the female cashiers to stand on the table and attempt to calm the crowd with her own colorful retort. Van Daniker, a CPA and real-estate agent who spends at least as much of his day dealing with UK hockey line items as he does his own holdings, held open one of the doors as fans poured in.
The experience was summed up succinctly by one student as he walked through the doors and approached the single staircase that leads up to the bleachers.
“That was f–king brutal, man,” he said.
An ear-to-ear grin suggested he’d gladly suffer again.
Since it’s not under the thumb of UK’s athletics department, the hockey team could sell alcohol at its games. It cannot, however, because the Lexington Ice Center does not permit alcohol sales as part of a family-friendly environment. Signage near the bleachers asks patrons not to use foul language, and none of the advertising dashers around the rink promote businesses where alcohol sales are even hinted at, let alone the focus.
It’s unclear if the sale of on-site alcohol would reduce the dozens of empty travel-size liquor bottles found in the bleachers after a game, but it would provide an additional revenue source for a program that this season is operating within a budget of about $200,000. A decent chunk of the annual budget comes from the club admission fee paid by its players — $3,000 apiece — which covers their equipment and other gear (there were 31 players listed on UK’s roster as of January). The rest is procured through fundraising, spearheaded by Tim Pergram, game-day ticket sales and the selling of apparel, which wasn’t much of a thing prior to his and Van Daniker’s tenure. Mingua Beef Jerky is the team’s most generous sponsor, and it has an exclusive apparel deal through CCM Hockey, a Canadian outfitter that’s been in business since 1899.
Over the years, too, the team has periodically been able to bolster its coffers through sales of schedule posters featuring female celebrities sporting a UK hockey jersey, and little else. Actress Ashley Judd, who had a cousin on the team in the 1998-99 season, was the first to do it. Model Kindly Myers was the most recent to partake in the tradition, for the 2018-19 edition. A renewal is in the works for the 2021-22 season.
Tim Pergram’s actual job is in pharmaceutical sales. He started coaching hockey after Clay’s travel coach quit, and would go on to start the program at Lexington Catholic High School after some prodding by his father-in-law, longtime Knights basketball coach Tommy Starns. His days, like just about everybody involved with the program, are long and fruitless, as far as money is concerned. He’s in it for the pure thrill of competition as much as the players.
“It’s a labor of love,” Tim said. “I get asked all the time, ‘Why do you do this?’ My wife asks me that a lot. ‘Why do you spend so many hours with it?’ I love it. It’s my passion.”
Kentucky competes as part of the American Collegiate Hockey Association, one of three major collegiate hockey organizations in addition to the NCAA and NAIA. It is a Division II member, one of 186 in the 2021-22 season, though a jump to Division I in the future hasn’t been ruled out. The biggest concern there isn’t competition level as much as it is travel; most of the ACHA’s 68 Division I teams are too far away to make playing a viable D-I schedule logistically possible. Nearby Cincinnati fields an ACHA Division I program, as does Alabama; UK split a pair of home games against the Crimson Tide, falling 2-1 and winning 7-4, in October.
At the NCAA level, there are 199 teams between Division I (41) and Division III (158); there is no championship contested for NCAA Division II hockey programs. Aside from a school athletics department’s desire to officially sponsor the sport — a decision that would introduce Title IX conflicts for most universities unless it also fields a women’s program — the main barrier between ACHA and NCAA is, of course, money. Penn State’s team was an ACHA member from its founding in 1971 through 2012, when its men’s and women’s teams both moved to the NCAA Division I level soon after a $102 million donation from Terrence Pegula, an alumnus who owns the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres, to the program resulted in the building of a dedicated arena.
A billionaire looking to ingratiate themselves forever to Lexington’s sporting public could do worse than funding a dedicated hockey arena for UK and other clubs in the area. Kentucky’s home crowds are the envy of most visitors, and could be much larger; the Pergrams believe the team could average at least 4,000 to 5,000 spectators if it could accommodate them. As far as regular in-person attendance (not season tickets sold) for UK sporting events is concerned, it is believed that the team draws the fourth-largest crowd over the course of a season behind football and the men’s and women’s basketball programs.
Not too shabby for a team that plays its games at midnight, doesn’t have multi-million dollar marketing weight behind it and still has to maintain academic eligibility without the support of dedicated tutors (UK hockey boasts a 3.12 team-wide GPA, despite that). Being an underdog doesn’t keep them from embracing their status as a university team.
“They take pride in that,” Tim Pergram said. “They honor that. They cherish it. They’re playing for the state of Kentucky. They’re playing for UK.”
Kash Daniel was a frequent visitor to UK hockey games while he was a student, and he continues to support the team following his tenure as a star linebacker for Mark Stoops’ football team. He dropped the ceremonial first puck ahead of this year’s UK-U of L game, and promptly gave an “L’s down” salute afterward to hype up a crowd that was already beyond juiced. He watched the entire game, adorned in his own custom jersey.
This year’s home game didn’t go Kentucky’s way — the Cats led early and equalized at 4-4 early in the third period, but Louisville scored three goals in the span of a couple minutes soon after to eventually leave Lexington with a 7-5 victory — nor did the return game, a 5-4 decision settled in overtime. But it wasn’t until U of L’s seventh goal, scored with 15:41 left to play and at about 2:17 a.m., that the beyond-capacity crowd finally started to disperse. At least half of the fans stayed until the frigid, bitter end.
Before that barrage, the environment was electric. Local naysayers who call out Generation Z for its lack of school spirit clearly haven’t borne witness to a Kentucky hockey game, where students are up against the safety netting celebrating with fellow Wildcats when they score. They embraced Cardinals scorers who chose to leap into the crowd, too, no doubt meeting them with a hearty chorus of words that the Lexington Ice Center would prefer its patrons not say.
Fielding a winner is part of it — Kentucky was 11-10-0 through Jan. 29 — but so is the embrace of the common fan. Unlike some major UK sporting events, where students have to win a ticket lottery to get decent seats, every attendee is charged $10 for general seating. If you’re there early, you too can embrace a goal-scorer at the net.
Parking is a breeze, and there are no extended delays to review a foul or determine whether a ball crossed the goal line. If not for the intermissions between periods to reset the ice, fans could be in and out of the venue in under two hours. Currently, those intermissions are filled with recorded music — you should have seen them belt out Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” during a stoppage to replace a sheet of plexiglass that became dislodged — but in the future, if Tim Pergram has his way, they will be showcases in which local talent can perform in front of what’s likely to be the largest audience they’ve ever played. The NHL’s Nashville Predators do something similar.
He has to sort it out with the Lexington Ice Center, but he would love to have tailgating with local food trucks in the parking lot during the warmer part of the season. (Warm weather might not be a requirement; several fans before the Louisville game had tailgates, including one in which an individual delivered a destructive jump into a table.)
“We like to make this an event,” Pergram said. “It is one of the top 10 things they tell kids when they go through their orientation at UK that you need to do before you graduate. We want to make it to where this is something everybody wants to have on their list. We’re a good team and got to keep putting that product out there, but the kids want to have fun. Our security team has done a great job making sure people are in a safe environment.”
The most common thread between generations of UK hockey fans is a cheer following every goal scored by the Wildcats. To the beat of “Rock and Roll Part 2” by Gary Glitter (“The Hey Song”), fans go through a round of “Hey, you suck!” followed by a boisterous “We’re gonna beat the puck out of you” right before the ensuing face-off. There is nothing like it in all of UK sports.
Sometimes, perhaps, the chant gets a little more R-rated.
“They have some interesting chants, I’ve heard,” Tim Pergram said with a laugh. “I’m over on the bench, I can’t hear them, but I’m sure my wife is probably leading a lot of them.”
It’s so deafening, it’s hard to say.
(Originally published at https://www.kentucky.com/sports/college/kentucky-sports/article257635048.html)