Virginia Tech Magazine
Fall 2009

Nothing hokey about Hokie hockey by Richard Lovegrove

by Richard Lovegrove

Think of Division I collegiate athletics and what comes to mind? Well-compensated coaches? Athletes on scholarship? Special dorms and team meals? Comfortable transportation? Nice practice and game facilities on campus?

Meet Mike Spradlin, a Virginia Tech head coach of the year whose team won its first-ever ACC regular season and tournament championship (11-0-1 league record) in 2008-09 and just missed the regional playoffs. Like all coaches, he works long hours preparing for and getting through a season. His salary? Zip. He's a volunteer who never even attended Tech. Ditto for Brian Myers, assistant coach and general manager, and Jesse Long, assistant coach.

Then there are players Jimmy Pope, offensive MVP of 2008-09, and Joe Woermer, defensive MVP for 2008-09 and captain of the 2009-10 squad. They aren't even on partial scholarship; in fact, each pays $1,500 a year to be on the team.

Head Coach Mike Spradlin chats with the Virginia Tech hockey team in the dressing room.
Head Coach Mike Spradlin chats with the team in the dressing team.

The facilities? They're 40 miles away at the Roanoke Civic Center. Team members carpool and share gas expenses for two to three practices a week.

Welcome to the world of Hokie ice hockey.

"We have to pay for our hockey. You have to commit a lot of time to it," says Woermer. "We don't get any benefits out of it other than our enjoyment."

Officially, the team is one of 29 university club teams that play sports that range from clay target shooting to women's lacrosse. It is a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference Hockey League (ACCHL), a Division II league in the American College Hockey Association (ACHA), and follows NCAA guidelines concerning eligibility requirements, grade point average, and the number of years a student can play.

While ice hockey at a Southwest Virginia college might seem a little out of place, Tech has had a team of some sort since 1984 and has been in the ACCHL since 1995, playing against Virginia, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Duke, and Georgetown. Other ACC colleges have teams but play in different leagues to reduce travel expenses.

Virginia Tech hockey player
"Everyone was excited to win the ACC tournament for the first time. It was a great achievement," Woermer says. "We hope this will help us turn the corner. We've got a bunch of good guys this year."
Spradlin played hockey in Vinton, Va., as a youth, went north for junior hockey, and then journeyed to Radford. He was coaching youth leagues when he learned seven years ago that Tech needed a hockey coach. Then, the team had 12 jerseys for 15 players, the annual budget was $8,000 (team dues alone bring in $45,000 now), and players practiced once a week--at 11:15 p.m. "We've come a long way since then," says Spradlin, who works during the day for his family's floor covering and retail business.Myers, who is from Botetourt County, Va., and works for Norfolk Southern, has never even played hockey, "but I've had a passion for the game for many years," he says. After attending a few Tech games, he offered to help out and ended up working in marketing and operations. Both coaches say they spend at least as much time on hockey as they do on their paying jobs.

Woermer played hockey at the Gunnery, a Connecticut boarding school. He visited universities that, first, boasted a superior engineering program and, second, fielded a competitive ice hockey team. He chose Tech for both.

Woermer's story is typical of most of the players on Tech's team: academics and then hockey. Because just a few dozen universities offer ice hockey scholarships, "there's a ton of talented hockey players who want to play somewhere," Spradlin says. "Our hockey program is now starting to compete with some of the northern programs."

Since Spradlin took over, improvements in playing conditions and on the ice have been steady. Seven years ago, 20 to 25 players tried out for the team. Now, tryouts draw about 60 hopefuls. Practice time at the Roanoke Civic Center is 8:15 p.m. "The civic center really saved the program" after the Ice Station in Roanoke closed down, Spradlin says.

What about team travel? Last year, Winston Samuels (M.S. APSC '80, Ph.D. '83), the father of player Joel Samuels and president and chief executive officer of Maxx Performance Inc., an entrepreneurial scientific company that manufactures microencapsulated food ingredients and food delivery systems, volunteered to cover charter buses for the season.

"He wanted to make sure the team was safe in our travels," says Spradlin. The entire team was able to ride to games and tournaments together. "Plus, it impresses the other teams," Spradlin says.

The team's 2008-09 season was one of firsts. The Hokies won their first-ever game against a Division I ACHA team (Maryland) and their first ever against a regionally ranked team (Temple, which was No. 6), and they came close to a regional top 10 spot (the top 10 go to the regional tournament), ranking 11th at one point. The game against the University of Virginia drew 5,200 fans (tickets are just $4; free to children 12 and under and to people with a Tech ID). The team finished 18-6-1 with all the losses but one coming to hockey powerhouses, took their first ACC regular season title, and then won the tournament on their home ice.

Virginia Tech hockey team members stretch during an early-season practice.
Virginia Tech hockey team members stretch during an early-season practice.

"Everyone was excited to win the ACC tournament for the first time. It was a great achievement," Woermer says. "We hope this will help us turn the corner. I expect to be in regionals for the first time. We've got a bunch of good guys this year."

Spradlin and Myers have their own dream: an ice rink on campus, which is a requirement to move up to Division I. Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., has its own rink, and it now has four hockey teams.

"We're already getting the talent to take this program as high as the university wants," Spradlin says. "We love the game, we love the university, and we love our guys."


Author, Dan Mirolli | Length: 02:19 |

RICHARD LOVEGROVE is an editor in University Publications. DAN MIROLLI is a video producer and director in Visual & Broadcast Communications.

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