No snow? No ice? No problem!
Justin Schuver, Sports Editor
The game of the True North is finally starting to arrive in the Deep South.
Hockey, long derided as a Canadian or northern United States game, has gone through its growing pains in the southern United States, but the game is finally starting to catch on down here.
Witness the Nashville Predators, who at a little more than a 1.5-hour drive from Hartselle are this area's closest professional team.
The Predators, who are only an eight-year old franchise, are currently one of the top teams in the NHL's Western Conference, trailing powerhouse Detroit in the Central Division by only three points (in hockey, you get two points for a win and one point if the game goes to overtime).
The Predators made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history in 2004 and appear well in shape to make it back once more.
Another Southern franchise, the Atlanta Thrashers, currently sit in eighth place in the Eastern Conference and are one of the hottest teams in the NHL after winning seven of their last 10 games. Left-wing sniper Ilya Kovalchuk is the LeBron James of the NHL, currently leading the league in goals despite being three months younger than your humble sports editor.
Then of course there's the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were the last team to win the Stanley Cup. Although they haven't had the same success yet this season, the Bolts have still become one of the league's greatest draws and are currently seventh in the East. Playing in front of an average attendance of 20,672 fans, the Lightning have the second-best average fan attendance in the league behind only hockey-mad Montreal.
Southern fans, in addition to being drawn to a winning team regardless of sport, have discovered the qualities of hockey that make it palatable to most sports fans. The game is fast, full of hitting and contact and features some great athletes.
Perhaps even more important than the growth of NHL franchises in the South has been the increase in youth leagues and participation. Huntsville has an amateur hockey league for high schoolers and most NHL cities like Atlanta and Nashville have sprouted vibrant youth and adult hockey league communities.
Hockey will also take center stage this February as the world's best players gather in Torino, Italy, for the Winter Olympics.
Both Alabama-Huntsville and the semi-pro Huntsville Havoc play at nearby Von Braun Center.
It's no secret that hockey is not your typical Southern sport, but the success that it's seen in cities like Nashville, Atlanta and Huntsville show that it's making ground in a part of the country where football is king and baseball is next in command.
Give it a chance.