Listening to Jerry Miller describe the sublime sensation of skating, you can practically hear his blades slicing across a frozen pond in Upstate New York. “It’s just invigorating,” he says. “The whole gliding action, to be able to glide around someone. It’s not like running around on a soccer field. It’s just different. It’s a rush.”
A long way from the ponds and rinks of his youth, Jerry still chases that rush at 54. On weekday evenings when many across the Midlands are beginning to wind down, Jerry and his cohorts in the local adult hockey league are lacing up. Twenty-four-year-old Sebastian Ionita competes against Jerry in those weeknight tilts.
“I’m from Greenville but originally from Romania,” says Sebastian, a master’s student at the University of South Carolina. “When I was in Romania, my dad took me to skating lessons when I was 6 and, shortly after, I discovered hockey. I just love it. It’s the most fun sport for me.”
While ice is hard to come by in the place known for being famously hot, hockey has found a skate hold in the Midlands, from youth all the way up to seasoned puck handlers. Those involved say that even though many don’t realize the sport is available here, interest exists at every level.
“We’re growing by leaps and bounds,” says Katie Moore, youth hockey coordinator with the Capital City Youth Hockey Association, a recreational and travel hockey league for youth players. “In the early 2000s, we had about 45 total kids between house and travel, and we had only two teams.” Today, CCYHA has 66 players in its recreational program and another 67 across four travel teams through the age of 16.
Many CCYHA players will also play with the Columbia Fusion, a high school club hockey team for the area that competes in the South Carolina Scholastic Hockey Association. In addition, an elite junior hockey team, the Columbia Infantry, is in its first season. Not affiliated with CCYHA, it competes in the United States Premier Hockey League.
Adult play has grown, too, according to Chris Remsburg, ice operations manager at Flight Adventure Park in Irmo, home to the Midlands’ only ice rink. There are 16 teams of approximately a dozen adult players each across A, B, and C divisions, which are based on skill level.
“We see a wide range of people and a wide range of age groups,” Chris says. “I’ve played my entire life and still play in adult leagues. I’ve personally played with guys in their 80s.”
In 2022, the National Sporting Goods Association estimated 3.2 million people participated in ice hockey in the United States, 283,000 of whom play in the South Atlantic Region, an eight-state area running from Maryland to Florida that includes South Carolina.
As Americans flock to the South for a variety of reasons, they bring their athletic pursuits with them. Chris hails from Los Angeles, where he started playing roller hockey and eventually transitioned to ice hockey in middle and high school.
Katie grew up in Buffalo, New York, skating on a pond in her backyard and watching hockey. Krista White, who manages the 10U travel teams for CCYHA, is from Canada and has a son and daughter playing in the travel program. They say Fort Jackson brings families familiar with hockey to the area, with most current players coming from outside the South.
Bobby DiCicco grew up 30 minutes from Boston in southern New Hampshire. He’s now a University of South Carolina student, majoring in finance and supply chain. Although he initially pursued a spot on the Gamecocks football team, he eventually reunited with an old love and became president of the USC Ice Hockey Club.
“We all grew up with hockey and have a dedication to the game,” Bobby says of himself and his 30 or so teammates. “The guys are all great guys. We’re also a good team, so it’s fun to win.”
The club was formed in 2001. As a campus organization, the team provides opportunities for classmates to get experience with the day-to-day operation of a hockey team. Bobby says 14 or 15 students have moved on to professional organizations.
Similar to other club sports at the school, hockey competes in a non-NCAA league, the College Hockey Federation. The season runs from September to March. USC began the 2023-24 season ranked No. 5 in the National Division, competing against schools such as Niagara University and the University of Georgia. Bobby says more than half his teammates come from the North, ranging from Minnesota to Michigan to Maryland to Massachusetts.
“That narrative is changing, though,” he says. “Our mission is to grow hockey in the South.” He says they’ve leveraged social media to create interest in the team. Last year they sold 1,300 of their replica jerseys. When tickets became available for a game against Clemson, he says 3,500 people signed up for fewer than 600 available seats in Flight’s rink, where USC practices and plays.
“Those 584 tickets sell within about five minutes,” says Brenshon Stovall, general manager at Flight. “It gets loud in here. It’s really exciting.”
Flight is part of a chain with 13 locations in the United States and Canada, offering attractions such as trampolines, inflatables, and arcades. The Irmo location is the only one with an ice rink. A location at Sandhills has a roller rink. The Irmo location is open year-round, providing ice time for public skating almost every day in addition to organized hockey and figure skating.
“From September through March, we have a jam-packed schedule,” Brenshon says. “We’re here from 6 a.m. until midnight most days. It definitely keeps us busy, but we haven’t had to turn anybody away yet.”
Flight has purchased a second Zamboni, the iconic machine that rides around the rink resurfacing the ice. Several different employees know how to drive it.
“It’s important to keep everything going for the hockey players and the figure skaters,” Brenshon says. “It’s fun seeing the ride over the past few years as Flight has put more money into improving facilities.”
Younger skaters practice and play earlier in the afternoons and evenings, with adults and the USC squad often clocking in after 9 p.m. The facility originally opened in 2000, passed through multiple owners, and was occasionally shuttered before Flight acquired it in 2018. Jerry moved to South Carolina in the mid 1990s. The lack of ice at the time resulted in a brief pause from hockey. He currently skates for an A Division team sponsored by local restaurateur Kristian Niemi, who also plays goaltender.
“I’ve been playing here since it opened,” Jerry says. He also played at Carolina Coliseum downtown when it still hosted hockey. The East Coast Hockey League’s Columbia Infernos played there from 2001 through 2008, making it to the league finals in 2002-03. Amateur hockey was offered concurrently with pro hockey at the coliseum during that time.
“The next closest sheets of ice are in Greenville, Charlotte, and Charleston,” Krista says. She and Katie say the Palmetto State has four competitive youth hockey organizations — CCYHA plus two in the Upstate and one in the Lowcountry. CCYHA teams augment their training with off-ice workouts.
Along with finding ice time, one of the challenges to taking up hockey is price. A shopping trip for skates, pads, sticks, and a helmet can easily approach $1,000. Dues are $650 to play rec hockey with CCYHA; $1,050 for a house select team, which travels occasionally; and $1,850 for the travel teams, which will play up to a half-dozen games on a travel weekend. It’s $2,500 per season to play for USC. “We’re trying to reduce that down to zero,” Bobby says. “We created an endowment last year.”
Flight donates fees for locker rentals to a scholarship fund for CCYHA players. CCYHA also has an equipment rental program that takes the sting out of purchasing hockey getups for growing kids.
“We can outfit them head to toe and send them out the door with an equipment bag for $35,” Krista says.
Katie adds, “We have collected so much equipment over the years that kids have outgrown. We are actually the least expensive organization in the state, and I believe we’re the only organization with an equipment rental program.”
Krista says the coed CCYHA is a nice alternative to high level travel sports, such as soccer and baseball. “Those sports are just so highly competitive that some parents feel their child can grow faster and easier playing hockey as opposed to sitting on the bench with 50 other kids,” she says. “They get more ice time and playing time.” Krista and Katie say additional “learn to skate” and “try hockey for free” programs through CCYHA and Flight are in the works to introduce young people to the sport.
On a Wednesday night with three spectators in attendance, the adult league players aggressively skate up and down the frigid rink, giving max effort even if the passes and shots aren’t always on target. At one point, a shot seems to be whizzing toward the top corner of the goal before the opposing netminder stretches out a gloved hand to snag it. Players bang their sticks on the boards in a form of hockey applause.
“Everybody I play with is a good guy,” says Sebastian. Also a tennis buff, he grew up alternating between hockey from autumn to spring and tennis in the warmer months. Jerry, a glass expert who works in construction, says he still exercises but not like when he was younger. “There’s a bunch of young guys in the league now,” he says. “It gets tougher to keep up.”
Try telling that to John Crangle. The 83-year-old Columbia attorney and governmental policy advocate skates in the C Division each week. A native of the Upper Midwest where he learned hockey, he’s also laced up skates everywhere from Stevens Point, Wisconsin, to Jacksonville, Florida.
“I’m the oldest hockey player in the state of South Carolina, as far as I know,” he says. “It gives me a chance to associate with younger people. The only reason I survive as a hockey player is I know the game pretty well, and I don’t make stupid mental mistakes. I can pass the puck accurately, and I can still shoot the puck from short range.”
When he first moved to South Carolina in 1979, he would travel as far as Charlotte or Greenville to find a game. Now, he and his son, a Greenville attorney, sponsor their squad. His son, also named John, is the youngest player on the team at 36.
“My son has ‘Junior’ on the back of his jersey,” he says. “Everybody knows me as ‘Chief.’ I’ve been a fixture out there for more than 20 years. When the younger guys first got there at 18-20 years old, I was there. I’ve been there as long as the building has been there.”
Given the growing interest, the building should still be there for some time. And perhaps a CCYHA player will fall in love with hockey and stick with it for as long as John has … or at least long enough to play with him, Jerry, or Sebastian and the others in the adult league.