The Middle Tennessee State ice hockey club recently announced it will be joining the Southeastern Collegiate Hockey Conference (SECHC) beginning in the 2019-20 season.
“This was something as the new commissioner I wanted to make sure everyone understood this is a team effort,” newly-appointed SECHC commissioner Justin Bradford said. “In talking with different players and coaches, I think they all understood expansion is a great thing because of location, travel and budgets. All of these hockey teams are student organizations and so they have to work within a budget, so having teams that are local really helps with that. Adding MTSU helps with all that because they are local and they have a lot of fans here.”
“It just made sense when Justin Bradford became commissioner,” MTSU hockey coach Jasen Riherd said. “He realized this could become a force in the south. Now, here we are part of a top-tier hockey conference."
Entering its 11thseason, the SECHC also recently added Clemson, Florida State, Kenesaw State and the University of Alabama-Huntsville, as well as MTSU, in the conference’s first expansion since 2010.
“What’s going to be great is some of these schools already have established rivalries,” Bradford said. “But now, adding some more teams we can add in more rivalries. MTSU and Vanderbilt can now be a hockey rivalry. MTSU and UT will become a rivalry, UAH and MTSU can become a rivalry. These will all be conference rivalries.”
MTSU has been an independent hockey club since its inception in 2015-16. As part of the American Collegiate Hockey Association, club-level and non-varsity teams don’t have to abide by the same conference guidelines Division I programs do.
“Unlike other sports, these are student organization, club sports and they're non-varsity,” Bradford said. “So, schools that play in the SECHC play as part of the ACHA. They’re the governing body over all these teams and divisions in men’s hockey. The SECHC is primarily a Division III conference, so it allows us to be different in terms of how we expand.”
Riherd has been with the club since the beginning and eyes the new conference as a golden opportunity to not only grow the sport, but introduce a new generation of kids to the possibility of playing college hockey.
“It’s going to open up a lot of recruiting doors,” Riherd added. “There are guys who grow up fans of Georgia, Auburn and Georgia Tech, and they may not the degree they want to have, so the next best thing is to play against them. I think that naturally is the next step to bringing kids in here.
With an already strong and growing congregation of hockey fans thanks to the Nashville Predators, hockey has grown in popularity ever since the early 2000s. With Vanderbilt and MTSU now taking their in-state rivalry to the ice rink, plus the growing popularity of the GNASH high school hockey league, the sky really is the limit on how big hockey can become in the south.
“What’s great is Nashville hosts the SECHC tournament in February at Ford Ice Center,” Bradford said. “There’s so many alums of all these schools in the Nashville area that show up. For the tournament, we’re going to be able to get a lot of people out to these games and experience college hockey. MTSU being local will really help with that. My goal is to become the elite conference in the southeast region of the United States.”
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @mpatrickg / Michael Gallagher / Murfreesboro Post