Columbus Hockey High School League
by Beth Welch
Columbus Team Finds New Home To Be “Ice-ing” On The Cake
Columbus has long been known as a sports icon in the valley area. Scores of professional, collegiate and local athletes have benefitted from Columbus sports programs and facilities over the years. The new kid on the block, ice hockey, has taken root in Columbus and thanks to the recently opened Columbus Ice Rink next door to the Columbus Civic Center; a local high school hockey league is looking to be a foundational program for the region.
Ice hockey first arrived in Columbus by way of the professional hockey team, the Columbus Cottonmouths. The late Charlie Morrow introduced the sport to the region following his purchase of the local minor league baseball team. Although professional baseball no longer exists in Columbus, ice hockey has endured, prompting the eventual building of a separate ice facility specifically designed for local leagues and ice sporting events.
Between the time ice hockey first came on the scene and when the new rink opened in May 2011, various leagues were formed to promote ice hockey as a sport for every age group. High school hockey took shape about five years ago according to Steve Novak, coach for the Columbus Junior Snakes High School Hockey team.
Later a franchise was formed, the Columbus Hockey League, and the team now plays in the Georgia Student Hockey League. The Columbus team is an A-league team whose opponents include Woodstock, Johns Creek, Collins Hill, Kennesaw Mountain and Dunwoody.
Novak began coaching the local high school team two years ago. Now into his third season, the Montreal native is still as passionate about hockey as he probably was back in the day as a high school hockey player himself. Two of his sons, Brandon and Nicholas, play on the Columbus team and the three Novaks regularly make the trek from their home in Newnan to Columbus for practices and games.
While it might seem odd for someone in Newnan to travel to Columbus just for hockey, to Novak it makes all the sense in the world, especially now that the new ice rink is open for business.
“It is the best rink in Georgia,” says Novak. “People come down here from the north and say, ‘How did you get this rink?’ It’s the best kept secret in Georgia.”
Novak grew up playing ice hockey. He also played in college and has lots of experience as a coach. He came to the Atlanta area by way of his former job with Delta in 2002. Shortly after, he discovered Columbus’s burgeoning hockey programs and got involved.
Twice a week, he journeys down I-185 for practices, sometimes three times a week closer to finals. Novak and his boys are not the only ones who live outside of Columbus and take advantage of the prestigious new facility and high school hockey program.
“There’s a lot of great talent coming through here. We have guys who are playing AAA hockey who also play with us. Jake Cox plays up north. We have guys who play AA up in Atlanta that have selected to play down here because of the comradeship, less stress, less travel and much more of a unified group. Columbus is a great hockey market,” Novak says.
Currently Novak has approximately 20 players on his team in grades nine through 12. He has tryouts for the team but Novak envisions a day when he will have about 60 kids tryout and he can form two teams, a primary and a follow-up. But he acknowledges the league isn’t there yet.
“We are still in development. Basically whoever shows up gets to play but we are trying to get the high school program developed. You really need to start with younger kids because you have to teach them how to skate so that by the time they get to high school, they are developed players,” he says.
The reasons are myriad, according to Novak, as to why more of the area’s youth are not involved in ice programs at the new rink. Novak feels more publicity is needed about the various leagues. Also, hockey can be an expensive venture for a youngster who might not stick with the sport, but Novak points out equipment has been donated to offset costs for players and fundraisers also help to defray expenses.
The high school hockey coach is confident the new rink will eventually pay off in terms of bringing more interest for the sport and the local leagues.
“It was one of those ‘If you build it, will they come,’ things and it’s happening. Before, you had to share the ice with other venues happening at the Civic Center. Now there is good ice to be used here and not just for boys. Other uses for the ice will bring more attention,” says Novak.
As for his own team, Novak has seen a vast improvement over last year. The Junior Snakes season runs from mid-October until the first week in March. Practices on the ice at the Civic Center were limited at best. Now, Novak’s team can work consistently and efficiently through regular practice sessions. And with six home games scheduled this season at the new rink, it is less travel for the team.
Even the players are appreciative of the expanded ice time and new home ice. Novak’s oldest son, Brandon, has been playing hockey since the age of three. The 17-year-old right wing is looking at possibly playing the sport at Kennesaw State next year but has nothing but praise for his present situation.
“The Junior Snakes is a great organization. We have a great facility, the ice is nice and the boards are thick. You get a good bounce off of them,” he says with a laugh.
The younger Novak even has kind words about playing under the direction of his father as coach. The teen athlete knows his dad can be “intense” but recognizes his dad’s coaching has been beneficial over the years.
“He can be tough at times but I know he knows what he is talking about. Having hockey in common has also given us something in common. We are always talking about hockey,” says Brandon.
Sam Hatala, 14, is a freshman at Columbus High School. He is a transplant from Maryland, where he learned to play hockey. He decided to join the Junior Snakes this season and has no regrets about his decision.
“The best thing about the hockey team is the people. It’s a fun team and we have a great facility to play,” says Hatala.
Playing wing for the Junior Snakes this season has been a good experience for Hatala but he admits high school play is a little different from previous teams.
“It’s more competitive and definitely a lot quicker than other levels,” he says.
Novak hopes more local athletes will begin to take notice of the league as his team becomes more successful and word gets around.
“We should finish in the top two this season and challenge for a state championship. We are out here developing players in the best ice rink in Georgia. Eventually, it will come together,” he says.