The Hurricanes will have several roommates in the hockey facilities at the new Wake Competition Center in Morrisville, and one will be from a university they’re used to sharing a building with. The NC State club hockey team, which has made substantial growth in popularity and stature in recent years, will use the facility for home games and practices.
The team also has its own beautiful locker room upstairs in the rink building, one the team essentially built itself, from carrying the stalls up the stairs, to laying carpet, painting and building stick racks.
“Speaking personally, we put in a lot of hours getting that thing ready to go, so we’re pretty happy with the finished product,” said NC State senior Ian O’Rourke. “It took us pretty much all summer, and like I said, we had a lot of guys putting in a lot of time to make it look as good as it does now, so it’s always [fun] to have a shiny new toy with the locker room and what not, but it means even more when you’re the ones who built it. So we’re definitely looking forward to getting to use that next semester.”
For Jeff Ammons, the developer of the building and an NC State alumnus, getting the college hockey teams involved was a priority.
Throughout last winter, NC State hockey was involved in the process with the design of its space before agreeing on pricing and terms, and the space “came together perfectly,” according to Icepack head coach Tim Healy.
“I think I’m very proud of the college club team to have 1200 fans in here, to have the organ playing, to have their parents follow them,” Ammons said. “These kids have played hockey a long time and it’s an expensive sport. You’d hate to see them go cold turkey at 18 and quit. But to come here and play for State, it doesn’t matter if there’s 1,000 or 20,000, they’re all cheering for you and screaming. It makes a good atmosphere. So it’s really just kind of [exciting] seeing that come to fruition for a lot of them.”
The benefits to NC State hockey of having a space in the state of the art new facility are manifold. Those that follow the team closely know how much of a tight ship the team runs, and how seriously it takes its competition.
But for potential recruits seeing the facility and locker room, there’s tangible evidence of that right off the bat.
“There’s club teams that really are what you think when you hear the word ‘club,’ and there are teams that are really on the competitive, serious end of it, and that’s where we are,” Healy said. “It’s really a signal of where we are and how serious we take it. An example was, two weekends ago, I was at a USPHL game for the junior Canes, who also use [the WCC] as a home. After the game, there were a couple players I was interested in, and I was able to take them down to the space. As soon as they walked in, the kids’ eyes kind of went, ‘Whoa, you guys really do mean business.’ It’s that real, very public signal that we’re frankly in it to win it.”
The space also gives the team more opportunities for camaraderie, and the ability to do more things together as a team, such as a meeting space and an area to go over video.
It also gives the team a chance to celebrate its achievements, with championship banners and retired numbers hanging in the rink, with space for more.
The locker room also provides for a more spacious, well-ventilated, clean environment, something that takes on added importance in the age of COVID-19.
“We went through the entire fall, once we came together as a team, without a single case of COVID,” Healy said. “The space is just one of the reasons why, it was mostly how serious our players took it off the ice. But it’s a much healthier environment for our student-athletes too.”
For longer-tenured players such as O’Rourke and senior Eric Todd, seeing their space in the new facility is a mark of how much the program has grown.
“I think it’s really special to a lot of guys,” Todd said. “Especially some of the older guys that know where we’ve come from. I remember my freshman year, it was so incredible to even have a locker room. Now that we have a facility where there’s a little turf area right down the hall, it’s really accommodating, and it feels really special to be able to have a home rink.”
Over the years, both in its games against UNC at PNC Arena and in other games mostly played at the Iceplex, the Icepack has enjoyed packed houses and lively atmospheres. However, Healy pointed out the team had outgrown its capacity at IcePlex, resulting in having to turn fans away for many a big game.
Obviously, it will be a while until conditions with the pandemic are safe for NC State to play to a full house. But when it does, it should make for a great experience. The main rink seats 1200, but standing room can increase that to 1600, something Healy anticipates seeing for the big ACCHL rivalry games.
It will also, as Ammons pointed out, provide for a great atmosphere for players, with the old PNC Arena organ playing, Hurricanes PA announcer Wade Minter on the call and, when conditions permit, a lively crowd.
“That experience should be pretty exhilarating,” O’Rourke said. “Obviously we have the new locker room and new facilities up at the rink, which are really nice. But it’s all topped off by having a great crowd like we always used to get at Iceplex, so this place opens the door for even more people to come in and the organ playing would be a cool feature, obviously Wade does a great job with the PA. So all this stuff is really exciting, not just for this year but for going forward as well.”
Playing in the new facility will also allow the Icepack to have 7 p.m. start times on Friday nights, which should provide a big boost to attendance, and see more families attending games in addition to Wolfpack students and fans.
“I definitely remember when I was growing up, seeing NC State playing and I was like, ‘Wow, we actually have college hockey here,’” Todd said. “So I think having that 7 [o’clock] start time was really important in us moving to this new rink. That was one of our stipulations for us to move. I think families are a big part of that, since we’re doing all this outreach stuff; yes, we still want students to come, but I think we want the environment to be more family-oriented for the community’s sake, growing hockey in North Carolina.”
NC State being part of the new facility with the Hurricanes and various youth programs that play there should also allow the team to become a bigger part of the wider Raleigh hockey community, something that’s always been one of its goals.
“I really see our role in the hockey community as twofold,” Healy said. “One, we are NC State’s college hockey team. We’re the team that represents the alums and the students of the university and the fans of the university, so that’s one. The other aspect of is, to me, we are the Raleigh hockey community’s college hockey team. … We may have a different name, obviously, with NC State, but we’re all in black and red, we’re all in Raleigh, we’re all working to grow the game itself, both in the community and for us, within the NC State community.”
Over the past several years, the NC State club hockey team has grown, both in terms of fan support through its games at PNC Arena and quality product on the ice, and success, including an ACCHL title and trip to ACHA Nationals in 2019.
Having its own space, state of the art locker room and playing home games in the Wake Competition Center should only further that growth, and aid the team’s goal of helping to grow the game of hockey in the Raleigh community.