Georgia Institute of Technology
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The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets ice hockey club is the oldest continuously operating college ice hockey program in the South. The club was established in 1973, spurred on by the arrival of the NHL Atlanta Flames. The club faced many challenges, including limited financial resources, the lack of ice facilities to play and practice and no organized competition in the area. According to Mike Murphy, the principal founder and first team president, the club almost didn’t get started because the Athletic Association was not interested in sponsoring ice hockey as a sport, the Student Athletic Council had virtually no money and the student council balked at making a $4,000 loan to a student organization because of the precedent it would set. The controversy was settled when the team compromised on a $2,500 grant to fund club operations. Murphy says the credit goes to all the members of the initial team and those who followed who put up with 1 to 3 a.m. practices, long Friday night car trips to play games in Knoxville and Charlotte, and paying most of their own expenses to participate in a sport that was foreign to the South and Georgia Tech.
By the late 1980’s, the program was floundering. The Jackets were a part of the Southern Collegiate Hockey Association (SCHA), predominately composed of teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and the Southeastern Conference (SEC). The team’s lone successful season was 1988-89 when Tech won the SCHA Championship.
Midway through the 1989-90 season, the Georgia Tech hockey coach fled the state, pursued by authorities for felony battery. His replacement the following season lasted only two games. Ironically, these events were the catalyst that led to the emergence of Georgia Tech hockey as a premier collegiate program.
During the summer of 1991, the team’s treasurer received a phone call from Greg Stathis, who was interested in learning more about coaching the Tech hockey team. Over chili dogs and beer at Dirty Al’s Saloon, Team President Rob McConnell and Joe Slater met with Stathis and discussed what they were looking for in a coach. They were also very candid with their prospective leader. They explained that even though the team received a fair amount of funding from the Institute, they had been told unequivocally that there was no hope for achieving varsity status due to Title 9 and insurance reasons. At the time, the team was also barred from using any of the Athletic Department’s trade marks. Stathis was also told that team participation on road trips was always sketchy; the previous season only seven players made the trip to play Virginia Tech. Game times were also ridiculous with 2am face-offs in cities like Lexington and Tampa. In addition to all that, the team had no financial means to pay him a salary or cover his travel costs on road trips.
Stathis accepted the challenge and began his tenure as Head Coach at the start of the 1991-92 season. He was determined to make the Georgia Tech Hockey Club into a program that would become a model for other collegiate hockey clubs regionally and nationally. It didn’t happen overnight but by the 1995-96 season the Jackets skated to a 15-1 record.
The team overcame many obstacles during the early Stathis years. Practice and game times were often after midnight, which meant the fan base was virtually non-existent. Despite the odds, Stathis continued to instill pride and motivation in his players along with the importance of representing the school with a quality product. Stathis began a concerted effort to reach out to the student body and the Atlanta community to promote the team. His efforts paid off when more than 2000 fans jammed into the old Parkaire Ice Arena off Johnson Ferry Road for opening night, October 9, 1996 (which just happened to the Coach’s 37th birthday). Buzz, the Georgia Tech mascot, made his first appearance at a hockey game and the team sold its first printed programs which contained advertisements from corporate sponsors. The Jackets finished in 4th place during the 1996-97 season but upset their in-state rival Georgia during the SCHA playoffs to win the championship before a crowd of over 2500 fans.
With the SCHA on shaky ground financially, Stathis was the driving force that created College Hockey South (CHS), which boasted 12 teams across the Southeast, many of which were already ACC rival schools. Stathis was also instrumental with the organization of what is now known as the Savannah Hockey Classic, the annual college tournament played in Savannah each January. Georgia Tech won the inaugural tournament in 1999.
By the close of the 20th century, the team had increased their sales of team memorabilia, corporate sponsorships and school funding to the tune of $50,000.00. The team won 32 games during the 1999-2000 season and went on to capture the CHS Championship. The American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) invited the Jackets to its first ACHA Division 3 championship tournament at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Tech opened the tournament by defeating the Navy team 3-2 in route to a second place tournament finish.
Stathis coached the Jackets for 17 seasons before his untimely death in 2008 at the age of 49, reportedly from complications following his second kidney transplant. He coached the Jackets to 348 victories with a winning percentage of .742. Between 1999 and 2003, Tech amassed a 104-10-2 record, won two CHS Championships and was runner up in the ACHA Division 3 tournament. He also had a remarkable record in that every one of his players graduated during his tenure as head coach.
Dan Hazlett, Assistant Director of Campus Recreation said “Greg Stathis has done more to promote Club Sports at Georgia Tech than all of the other clubs combined.”
In 2019, Georgia Tech accepted an invitation to join the Southeastern Collegiate Hockey Conference (SECHC).