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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Family, forechecking, figure skating

The+bleachers+and+ice+of+Spirit+Ice+Arena+on+Thursday%2C+July+7%2C+2022.
Photo by Cameron Johnson

The bleachers and ice of Spirit Ice Arena on Thursday, July 7, 2022.

A loud horn blared out across the arena. It was quiet for only a moment before loud yells and cheers of excitement erupted from the men in maroon. They slid across the ice, crashing into one another, raising their sticks in the air. The year was 2020 and the Texas A&M hockey team had just won the Texas Collegiate Hockey Conference, or TCHC, championship for the first time. Among the team were former vice president of the team, Brandon Steele, former captain Gary Russell, and all-time leading scorer Huston Svondrk.
“A full-circle ending,” Steele said when describing the moment years later. But what that team didn’t know was that game would be the last time they would ever officially play together again. A couple of weeks later, Steele, Russell, Svondrk and the other Aggies would discover they could never step foot as a team into the place that built their memories and fostered their friendships again.
The music ended. All that president of the A&M figure skating club Catherine Ridley could hear was her heavy breaths. Then the clapping began. A brilliant smile lit up Ridley’s face as she curtsied to her audience. As Ridley left the ice, she was greeted by the girls she considered sisters in the place she considered home.
It was there on that ice that Ridley found an outlet for her passion and dreams and a way to inspire others to find their own.
Hidden away on the east side of College Station lies a cold arena filled with memories, brotherhood and dreams. An arena unknown by many but ingrained in a few. An arena whose name embodies its significance: Spirit Ice.
The vice president
Steele said he started playing hockey when he was only two years old after the Dallas Stars won the Stanley Cup. He played travel hockey for most of his life before joining a high school hockey team in Frisco. The Dallas native said when it came to applying for college he quickly set his sights on A&M.
“I was talking to some friends who played at A&M, and I knew it was a school that I was interested in going to,” Steele said. “I only applied to Oklahoma State and A&M. I got into both, and A&M had hockey, so I decided to go there.”
Steele said he decided to try out for the team; despite his 16 years of experience playing hockey, he was nervous.
“I knew I could play at the level that these guys were playing at just based on watching a game or two,” Steele said. “But the jump from playing against 16-to-18-year-olds to playing against 18-to-24-year-olds is a big jump. So that was intimidating – the physicality level, the speed. But being the type of player that I am, it didn’t really make me back down.”
Steele joined the team and recalled making a quick connection with his fellow teammates. Steele said it was less about what they were doing and more about the people they were doing it with, even going as far as living with them for three and a half years.
“We all had a house together,” Steele said. “It was ‘open door,’ people would come over without knocking and we loved that about it. So, it could be Tuesday night, and there were three people over in addition to the five that lived there.”
Steele said that the team became his fraternity, and the players became his brothers. Some connections, Steele commented, lasted beyond their time on the ice.
“My best man is one of my roommates,” Steele said. “Three of my other groomsmen are hockey players. I talk to them every single day.”
Steele recalled that his time at A&M spent playing hockey allowed him to get closure on the sport, knowing he had no plans to go to the professional leagues.
“I still play two to three times a week in a men’s league and I love it but there’s just something to be said about competitive hockey,” Steele said. “There was a lot more to it in college, and there was a tighter bond between everyone, and I think it was a good closing chapter to the sport that I had played for 20 years growing up.”
The captain
Russell said he played travel hockey his whole life growing up. Russell knew he wanted to attend A&M and play for their hockey team in order to gain an experience he lacked in select teams.
“When I was a high school senior deciding to go to A&M, my biggest goal was to play to represent my school,” Russell said. “Growing up playing on travel, select teams outside of my high school, I didn’t really have those two worlds connected. So, I realized the opportunity to combine the two circles that I was in, which were school and hockey, while I was at A&M.”
As a non-NCAA team, Russell said A&M hockey functions as a student-run club, meaning that players pay for services and equipment themselves; however, Russell said it has positives.
“It makes you appreciate hockey a little bit more because you are a full-time student,” Russell said. “It was tough to balance the two. I think when you [are] at the rink and basically being a student-run club, paying for everything makes you work harder and appreciate [it].”
Russell spent five years on the team and served as a captain from 2017 to 2020. In his senior year, Russell recalled, the team went on to win the TCHC championships for the first time.
“Our team had several years of underperformance in the playoffs despite being the favorite to win the TCHC,” Russell said. “Winning the championship, finally, in my last year was much more emotional and felt like the monkey was finally off the back for A&M hockey.”
Following his graduation in 2020 and the COVID-19 break, Russell became the assistant coach, training some of the teammates he used to play with.
“It’s been incredible [coaching a team I used to play for],” Russell said. “There are still a few guys on the team that I was teammates with, so I’ve been able to see them grow and develop over the last few years. Given that I was a fifth-year senior when these guys were freshmen, it’s been pretty cool to coach them, teach them about hockey and watch them grow into young men.”
The record holder
At age four Svondrk said he began skating as an homage to his father’s heritage. His father immigrated to America from the Czech Republic, where ice hockey is the national sport.
“I was born and grew up on skates,” Svondrk said. “I always kind of knew I was going to be a hockey player. I learned to skate when I was four, played hockey starting at six years old now and I’ve been playing for close to 20 years now.”
Svondrk said in his senior year of high school, he was considering a multitude of options for his future including joining the junior leagues. But, Svondrk recalled visiting A&M’s campus after receiving an academic scholarship and falling in love with the environment.
“Not really knowing much about the hockey program [at A&M,] the coach got in touch with me,” Svondrk said. “One of the guys on the team who I had grown up playing with told me to come up to one of their recruit dates. So, I came out there, met the team, learned about the program a little bit and was sold.”
In his first game as a member of the team Svondrk said he played in a home game against the University of Texas in an environment like no other.
“I remember the first night coming on to the ice for warmups and just seeing the seats packed,” Svondrk said. “The stands were standing room only. I thought it was the coolest feeling ever, and I will never forget that. I got goosebumps on my arms coming onto the ice, and there’s no other feeling like it, just playing in front of all your fellow Aggies and hearing the chants.”
Svondrk continued playing with the team, and by the end of his senior year, Svondrk was the team’s leading scorer.
“I had really great teammates,” Svondrk said. “I got a chance when I was a freshman to play with two seniors on my line, so I had good leadership. I had a lot of guys passing me the puck, and when I passed them the puck, they put it in the net also, so I had a lot of assists.”
Svondrk said he ended his time with A&M hockey in a fortunate way with his final game being their win in the conference championship. However, Svondrk said the end was abrupt with COVID-19 hitting three weeks later.
“I think any college athlete, when your time playing your sport comes to an end, there’s a ‘feeling-out’ time,” Svondrk said. “I didn’t know what to do with my time. On top of that, because of COVID-19, everything was closed, and I got kicked out of all my classes; it was all on Zoom. I went from playing the sport I loved my whole life and going to school to no more hockey, [and I] can’t even skate because all the rinks were closed, and no class. It was a really weird time and hard to process, but there’s closure. I went out on the highest note you can go out on: it was the conference championship and we won.”
The president
Ridley said she loved figure skating from a young age and would make her parents take her to the rink whenever they could. However, Ridley recalled, it wasn’t until she arrived at A&M that she considered competing.
“When I got to A&M, the first thing I did was sign up for lessons at the ice rink,” Ridley said. “I started practicing and eventually joined the [figure skating] club.”
It was while taking lessons at the rink, Ridley said, that she met and connected with recently graduated club co-president Abigail Peterson.
“[Peterson] helped and coached me a lot,” Ridley said. “We worked well together, and she showed me a lot of opportunities. Together, we were able to work in the club and help me build all my skills.”
Ridley said she continued to work on her skills and compete along with the other girls in the program. By 2021, Ridley competed and earned her first-ever gold medal.
“When I finished my program, I got off and was talking to our team coach,” Ridley said. “We were discussing what I had done and watching the other people going and we were really unsure about whether or not I would place. Finally, the results were posted and we all ran over there to look, and I just remember looking at it, thinking it was weird that my name was at the top and what it meant and someone told me I got first.”
Ridley said she always has smaller goals such as landing a technique or making a jump bigger, but recently she and the club have set their sights on a bigger dream.
“I would love for the team to be able to host an intercollegiate competition next year possibly,” Ridley said. “We’ve been trying to work really hard to get the U.S. Figure Skating section changed out of the Midwest so that we can host some of the smaller competitions. It’s a lot of work, and our team’s pretty small compared to the northern teams.”
Despite their small numbers, Ridley said that the connections and friendships between the girls are as tight as can be.
“All of my friends are in the club,” Ridley said. “They’re the people that I see and talk to every single day. I see them almost every morning at 7 a.m. when we’re all practicing and hanging out and playing music. We also all coach the ‘Learn to Skate’ classes and compete in separate adult competitions together too.”
Ridley said as a former student herself, she finds excitement in coaching kids and helping them to grow to eventually surpass her own talents.
“Sometimes it’s exhausting when I get off of a three-hour-long coaching afternoon and just want to sleep,” Ridley said. “But, it’s really fun. Especially doing private lessons for younger kids and seeing them progress and outgrow even me as a coach. It’s satisfying and rewarding as well to watch someone else grow.”
The history
In the late 1990s, Holleman Drive East was a short road filled with only empty plots of grass. According to history provided by the hockey team, A&M had an unofficial hockey team, but with no rink within 100 miles of College Station to play in, they were stuck traveling back and forth between Austin and Houston. In 2005, with the help of private investors, College Station built the Arctic Wolf Ice Center as a center for recreational ice activities. It wasn’t until 2012 that the rink changed ownership and was renamed Spirit Ice Arena.
“[The classes at Spirit Ice] are really fun,” Ridley said. “It’s different when you’re an adult. I can’t speak for taking lessons as a kid. But as an adult, they have really good coaches who work with you, and you get to work with people your age. It’s a relaxing, fun and difficult but also rewarding sport, and I think everyone who is interested should try it.”
Over time, buildings and apartments were erected around the arena, and it was no longer the solitary structure it once was. The rink became a place that had something for everyone: hockey, figure skating, ice shows, free skating. Not long after, it became the Friday and Saturday hotspot for hockey fans and center stage for aspiring figure skaters, but both programs said they want the people of College Station to take the time to get to know them.
“The first thing [I want people to know] is that we exist,” Steele said. “Hockey is an incredible spectator sport. It’s the physicality of football, the mental game of baseball and the finesse of soccer all combined, so people who don’t really know what hockey looks like can still enjoy the game.”
The legacy
The A&M hockey team continued to foster brotherhood and a love for the sport during its 2021-2022 season where they returned to win the TCHC championships for the second time. Russell said winning the championship as a coach was different from his win as a player.
“Winning the championship as a coach was also very rewarding, but seeing the joy and excitement from the players was the biggest reward for myself and the coaching staff,” Russell said. “We knew we had a special group of guys, and we pushed them throughout the season to accomplish that goal, and finally hitting the goal was surreal.”
Russell said the team will break for the summer season but return in the fall with tryouts during Howdy Week. For more information or to enter a recruitment form, visit tamuicehockey.com.
The Figure Skating Club closed its season with its final exhibition on Saturday, April 30; the event featured a silent auction as well as recognized the graduating skaters. Heading into the fall semester, Ridley will return as president for the 2022-23 season, and the team plans to send skaters to all three U.S. Figure Skating Intercollegiate competitions. To learn more about joining the team and for more information visit tamufsc.wixsite.com/tamufsc.

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  • The exterior of Spirit Ice Arena on Thursday, July 7, 2022.

    Photo by Cameron Johnson

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