Kentucky and West Virginia
It’s no surprise that Minneapolis has a vibrant hockey community. Even Huntsville, Alabama has long been known as a hockey enclave of sorts. But would you expect to find the same enthusiasm in Louisville, Kentucky or Charleston, West Virginia? I didn’t. I was pleasantly surprised.
My first hint of hockey’s popularity down there came several months ago after I posted a link to my Saskatoon sub goalie story to reddit. A redditor named Phil read the story and invited me to play in Louisville. He explained that the Louisville Adult Hockey Players Association was the center of an enthusiastic group of adult hockey players. “Sure,” I thought, “how many enthusiastic adult hockey players could there be in Louisville? I bet they’re Minnesota transplants working for UPS.”
Not so, I later discovered: native Kentuckians play hockey, too. It turned out that the LAHPA has run a “never ever” hockey program for adults who have never played hockey (or even skated). The “never ever” program is so popular that it is run multiple times per year, often selling out the 40 or so slots.
Think about that. The closest NHL team to Louisville is in Nashville, 175 miles away. There are just a few indoor rinks in the Louisville area, and kids are more likely to grow up playing football than hockey. Despite those challenges, the hockey community in Louisville is thriving and growing: in the past decade, the number of registered hockey players in Kentucky has increased 58%.
The day I arrived in Louisville happened to be the second night of the current Never Ever session, so I stuck around to offer moral support and take photos. Two things struck me: everybody seemed to be having a really good time, and most (but not all) of the participants were relatively young (maybe mid-20s or so). Back in 2004 when I did the AHA’s beginner hockey program in Minnesota, it seemed like the average age was much older, perhaps mid-30s or so.
A couple days later, I subbed for Phil’s team, and while I wish I could tell a different story, the reality is that this goalie lost the game. I was a split-second behind the play, a bit off on my angles, and a hair short of closing up the holes. Sorry about that one, guys.
Nonetheless, I shook it off and pressed on with the trip. After an interlude in Indiana, I found myself in Charleston, West Virginia.
West Virginia is beautiful in the fall. I’d been there a few times in the past to go rafting on the upper Gauley River, always in the autumn, and the sights of the changing leaves covering the rolling hills were spectacular. I’d never thought of it as a hockey state, and with good reason.
There were just two rinks in West Virginia with ice in late September. One, used by the University of West Virginia club hockey team, was in Morgantown, and the other was in Charleston. I considered trying to finagle my way into one of the club team’s practices in Morgantown, but after a conversation with a man at the Charleston arena, I decided to go there instead.
I was surprised by two things at the Sunday night drop-in session. First, a lot of people showed up. I was the only goalie, at least until one of the skaters decided to give net a try for the first time ever, but there were plenty of skaters. Second, everybody in attendance seemed to be quite enthusiastic about playing and watching hockey. The rink manager even mentioned that he was a big Gophers fan.
Sure, some of those present were transplants from elsewhere in the country, but a good number were raised in the area.
Was the hockey at the highest levels? No, but that’s not the point. It was just a drop-in game, after all. The goal was to have a good time, and everybody was.