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The Wilmington IceHawks prove that Northern kids aren’t the only ones who know their way around the ice and a puck.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY Mark Steelman

One would not normally associate eastern North Carolina with the sport of ice hockey, but that was before the Wilmington IceHawks came to town.

The IceHawks is a competitive youth hockey team for kids ages 16 and younger. They practice and play home games at Wilmington Ice House skating rink, competing against teams from as far away as Charleston or Charlotte.

On one recent Saturday, the IceHawks Bantam team hosted the Junior Carolina Hurricanes squad from Raleigh. “The Boys are Back,” a raucous song by Dropkick Murphys, blared from the loudspeakers as the players took to the ice. In their blue and white hockey gear the IceHawks kids appeared twice their actual size. Still, the Carolina Hurricanes looked bigger. The Wilmington IceHawks are accustomed to being the underdogs, and maybe that’s not surprising. The Wilmington area is better known for producing surfers than hockey stars.

Wilmington IceHawksParents and supporters cheered the IceHawks from the sidelines. More than one Canadian accent could be heard above the din. Southeastern accents are still rare inside the rink.

About 10 years ago, a group of Wilmington residents hailing from Canada and the northern states decided to pool their money to build an ice rink in Wilmington. The result is the Wilmington Ice House, a family-friendly center for ice skating, birthday parties and hockey. Not long after, the Wilmington IceHawks team was born. The program consists of three teams: Peewee (aged 12 and younger), Bantam (14 and younger) and Midget (16 and younger). All three teams have performed well in the regional Carolina Hockey League.

In the recent game with the Hurricanes, the teams seemed evenly matched in the first period. In the second period, The IceHawks scored when a shot ricocheted off one of the player’s skates. The Carolina Hurricanes scored in the third period and the game ended in a 1-1 draw, not a win for the IceHawks Bantam team but not a loss either.

Wilmington IceHawks“We can usually compete with the bigger markets,” says Bantam coach Ryan Tanner. Although the team’s record is 2-5-1 this season, the IceHawks rarely lose by more than one goal. The biggest challenge to the team, Tanner says, is the local market: “We live at the beach. We have a very limited amount of kids to choose from.”

Hockey families have to be very committed. First of all, the sport is expensive. Parents need to shell out for uniforms, pads, skates and sticks, all of which kids outgrow quickly. Then there’s the travel. Dedicated players from Myrtle Beach and Jacksonville travel to Wilmington twice a week for practice. On weekends, families often venture as far away as Charlotte, Raleigh or Virginia to play away games. Because away contests consist of one game on Saturday and another on Sunday morning, trips usually include a hotel stay. For major tournaments throughout the 22-week season, teams travel as far as Nashville, Tennessee; Washington, D.C.; and Tampa, Florida.

Wilmington IceHawksCarolinThe IceHawks receive a lot of support from the professional Carolina Hurricanes team out of Raleigh. The Hurricanes’ Kids in Community Foundation provides financial aid so that any kid who wants to play hockey but needs support can play.

The players work hard, practicing skating, conditioning, passing and shooting drills nearly four hours per week. They practice power plays, penalty kills and breakout plays. Wayne Fussaro, third year coach of the midget squad, says he loves seeing the kids improve. “You don’t appreciate how hard the kids are working until you’re behind the bench,” he says.

It’s all worth it, parents say, because the kids get so much out of it. “When my kids found hockey, every other sport went out the window,” Fussaro says, adding that it’s the speed of the game that they love. “I think the object of the game, trying to put that little black puck into the net, is exciting.”

Tanner says 90 percent of the kids have been playing together for years and that they like being with their buddies, having fun in the locker room, and traveling to away games and staying in hotels. “I was forced into the rink by my kid who wanted to play hockey and now I can’t get out of the rink,” he says.

The IceHawks hope to grow their program. A couple of times per year, they sponsor Try Hockey for Free days in which kids can come to Wilmington Ice House to learn skills from coaches and current players.

“We just need to get kids coming out,” Tanner says. “We have great programs for kids of any age to get involved.”

Wilmington IceHawksCoach Fussaro adds that he would like to get kids as young as 5 years old involved and get to a point where they can consistently field teams at every age level.

“Hockey is alive and well in North Carolina,” Tanner says. “It’s a great sport, and it’s no longer a sport that’s designated to the North. We’ve got kids from all over the South that are playing excellent hockey.”

Wilmington IceHawksThe IceHawks encourage locals to come out and support the team. “If we can get people to come out and watch these games, they are generally very impressed,” Tanner says. The teams play on Saturdays and Sundays, and the schedule is posted on the IceHawks website.

At the end of the day, Tanner says, it’s about the kids. “Our main goal is to develop good people, not only to develop hockey players but develop excellent kids. More than anything we try to have fun with these kids. We’re all out there to have a good time. We want to make them hockey players for life.”

Wilmington IceHawksTo get information about playing on the team or to get a game schedule, go to wilmingtonicehawks.com. Wilmington Ice House is at 7201 Ogden Business Lane in Wilmington, (910) 686-1987; wilmingtonice.com.

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