A recently established junior hockey team is looking to change hockey culture in the Midlands.
Hockey culture in the Midlands has been scarce for years, but a recently established junior hockey team is looking to change that and facilitate a new era of growth.
The Columbia Infantry took the ice for the first time during the 2022-23 season of the U.S. Premier Hockey League. The team plays at Flight Adventure Park in Irmo, which houses the only permanent ice rink in the area.
The USPHL is a massive junior hockey league that has teams all over the country. The league has over 11,000 players in more than 100 organizations, with player ages ranging from 6 to 21.
“I think you need the extra time of development,” Infantry head coach Jacob Smulevitch said. “You need the extra time to grow. These kids are able to play hockey until they’re 20 years old and frankly, they’re able to stay kids for a little while longer.”
The expansion of the USPHL to Irmo fills a void that was created when the region’s East Coast Hockey League team, the Columbia Inferno, ceased operations in 2008.
While they are not a professional team, the Infantry are a local hockey organization that faces high-level competition regularly.
“It’s cool to see kids chase their dreams, right?” Smulevitch said. “It’s obviously a ton of fun, and it’s really good hockey. For the people that maybe aren’t as passionate about hockey, it’s an opportunity to try something that maybe you’re not used to down here.”
Hockey culture often doesn’t grab a ton of attention in the South, particularly in famously hot Columbia. Despite this, the Infantry are eager for community support and want to expand the love for the game in the area.
The Infantry host community events and will hold charity and donation drives during their home competitions to support local organizations. The team even held an honorary memorial match for James Muller, an Irmo firefighter who died in the line of duty last May.
“None of our guys are going to remember the score in five years of a game they played on a Saturday night,” Smulevitch said. “They’re going to remember the little moments and lives they impacted.”
The players and coaches within the Infantry organization hope these acts of service will lead to more support, thus creating more opportunities for bigger, more impactful community outreach.
Fans interested in catching a game can see one of two Infantry teams competing in the premier and elite divisions of the USPHL, two of the higher divisions.
The league is pay-to-play and offers players the opportunity to commit to their hockey future by spending a significant amount of time on the ice. The league’s goal is to maximize a prospect’s development and prepare them for college and beyond.
“Obviously every coach wants to win a championship, every player does,” Smulevitch said. “But only one team does. So for us, it’s how many players can we move on to colleges, how many players can we move on to higher leagues? Can we make our guys better people off the ice? And from that sense, I think we’ve done an unbelievable job.”
Players like Ryan Coutts and Sean Boltin have helped the team with their contributions this season. Coutts’ play earned him a call-up to a higher division.
Players like Coutts and the call-up system are part of what makes being a junior hockey coach bittersweet. Smulevitch said watching his players leave initially stings, but their success gives him pride.
“It’s pretty great to watch those guys have success at the next level and know that this is where they started, and a lot of their success can be attributed to the impact they made here,” Smulevitch said. “You turn on a game and see them score there, and then it’s definitely more sweet than it is bitter.”
The premier team currently consists of three local players from the Columbia area, Quinton Hernandez, Patrick Comose and Travis Schmieler. The team also features players representing 10 other states and four countries.
Gavin Cline is a forward from Carmel, Indiana and has been with Columbia for both seasons. He said no matter who comes in and out of the locker room the team treats each other like family.
“It’s like a band of brothers really. We bow for each other on the ice. Off the ice we act like brothers, we’re buddies. Sometimes we fight. Sometimes it’s like a big family,” Cline said.
Jay Mazzei is in his first year with the Infantry on the elite team and said he already sees the team as family.
“Being with a group of guys every day for six months creates a family almost instead of just hockey teammates,” Mazzei said. “You’re with them so much.”
The Infantry are in the middle of their seasons now. While both the premier and elite teams sit in last place in their conference, the team has made strides on the ice that Smulevitch is proud of.
“Our offense is something that’s been pretty good all year,” Smulevitch said. “We have some really high skilled players that have done a great job.”
The players acknowledge they have room for growth, but also recognize the improvement all around the team this season.
“We’ve had some rough patches, but I think everybody on this team’s grown just tremendously,” Mazzei said.
Smulevitch said he just wants the team to focus on getting healthy and continue to establish themselves in the league.
Both teams have four games scheduled for February, three at home, each featuring both squads playing the same day. The first home match is this Friday against the Charlotte Rush.
The teams will travel to Charlotte on Saturday before returning to Flight Adventure Park for back-to-back games against the Hampton Road Whalers on Feb. 24 and 25.
Mazzei and Cline are hopeful that as the Infantry continues to establish themselves in the league and the area, interest in the sport will grow and the culture will evolve.
“[Hockey] is definitely growing in the Carolinas,” Mazzei said. “I can tell as I’ve gone and traveled around the Carolinas with Charlotte and Raleigh, but even here with the team here and the youth team, the cyclones, it is growing, and it’s good to see.”
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