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DROPPING THE PUCK

February 27, 2017

By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Rutherford County Schools

Matt Darden could not help but to keep checking the calendar.

It was October of 1998 and his wife Teresa was due to give birth to their son Tucker and, well, the Nashville Predators were also scheduled to play the first game of their inaugural season in the NHL.

The Predators opened the 1998 season October 10 against the Florida Panthers.

They lost.

Teresa still hadn’t given birth.

Three days later, Matt watched on TV as the Predators netted the first win in franchise history when Nashville defeated the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2.

Again the timing worked in Matt’s favor.

Tucker wasn’t born for another 10 days.

It’s been 18 years and the younger Darden is a senior at Stewarts Creek, where his mother Teresa teaches pre-Calculus.

Naturally he’s a hockey player.

In fact, Darden and his fellow seniors in the GNASH league, which plays its games at the Ford Ice Center in Antioch, are the first graduating class to have grown up with professional hockey, much less any kind of hockey, in Middle Tennessee.

For Darden and others his age, they’ve never been without hockey.

The older Darden knowns how meaningful that is.

So too does teammate Colton Tincher, a senior at Blackman High School.

Tincher was born in Buffalo, New York, and lived there until moving to Rutherford County three years ago. He’s been playing competitive hockey since he was eight.

The biggest difference between youth hockey in Upstate New York and Middle Tennessee is back home, even the kids take it seriously and the games among pre-teens are physically intense.

“There are pros and cons, just like anything,” Tincher said. “It’s recognized a lot more when you’re up there.”

While he was used to more fan support in Buffalo, Tincher said fans in Middle Tennessee are as passionate as any fan where he’s from, there are just not as many of them here.

There aren’t as many players either.

Until moving to Murfreesboro, Tincher had never played on a combined team.

“I was used to a surplus of kids,” Tincher said. “They had to pick and actually cut kids off and move them to lower teams. Now I come here and it’s interesting because I know more people than I would have known. I got to know more kids from around the area.”

Blackman and Stewarts Creek have a combined team of 26 players to form one team that competes in a league with 18 teams mostly made up of high schools from the Metro Nashville area.

The Greater Nashville Area Scholastic Hockey league hosts a twice weekly high school league at the Ford Ice Center from October until March.

The Blackman / Stewarts Creek team are participating in the playoffs.

Darden said he and his teammates see themselves as one team.

“We’ve never looked at it as we go to different schools,” Darden said. “We’re always together practicing and playing games. School never crossed our mind like that.”

Tincher added, “You kind of get passed the competitive thing. I feel like now, when I go to a Stewarts Creek event, it’s not really a rivalry. I know kids at that school and it’s more like, ‘Yeah, it’s my friend’s school.’”

However, sports in Rutherford County have long been competitive.

In fact, it’s become commonplace for one school or another to seriously compete for state titles in just about every sport offered by the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association.

High school hockey, however, is a club sport.

“We’ve always had a full team,” said Darden, who understands that while the popularity of playing hockey is growing it’s not on par with football or even soccer.

“I’ve seen Ford (Ice Center) do a lot of promotions trying to get new kids to come skate,” added Tincher, who referees lower level youth hockey, “and there’s a lot less of that up north.”

The natural progression in this area is to take group and then private lessons, eventually join a house league and then the better players advance to travel teams. Club teams are then available at the high school level.

Darden played four years of travel hockey.

He’d play Monday, Wednesday and Fridays on a club team and then Tuesday, Thursday and weekends with a travel team.

“This year has been great,” said Darden, who is the team’s goalie and said he developed his passion for the sport in middle school. “We haven’t had a winning season, but it’s always been fun for me.”

“I’ve done this for nine, 10 years and it’s like, dang, I don’t want this to be done,” Tincher concluded. “It’s a great way to make friends.”

PHOTOS / KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Main Photo: Goalie Tucker Darden, a senior at Stewarts Creek High School, stretches out prior to spending an entire game between the pipes at the Ford Ice Center.

Darden poses with with his parents, Teresa and Matt along with Stewarts Creek principal Dr. Clark Harrell (far left) during a recent senior night celebration.

Blackman High School senior Colton Tincher with his parents, who moved from Upstate New York to Middle Tennessee three years ago.

Dr. Harrell, who was an assistant principal at Blackman before becoming the principal of Stewarts Creek, said he thinks "it's great" to see the school combine to form one united team. He's pictured here with Stewarts Creek senior Alexis Seilkop.