Skills Competition rehearsal uses college club players

Saturday, 01.30.2016 / 6:26 PM
Brian Compton  - Deputy Managing Editor

NASHVILLE -- Andrew Herzog knew quite some time ago that his chances of playing in the NHL were beyond slim.

A native of Mendota Heights, Minn., Herzog decided to go to the Air Force Academy and try to play hockey for his uncle, Air Force coach Frank Serratore.

"I tried to give it a shot without playing juniors, but I couldn't hack it," Herzog said.

Instead, he stayed and spent four years as a student manager, skating with the practice squad. He later got married and had two children.

But on Saturday, Herzog, 27, was on the ice at Bridgestone Arena with Vanderbilt University's club team rehearsing the 2016 Honda NHL All-Star Skills Competition.

"That was awesome," Herzog said. "I was telling coach I actually won Class A State Championship in Minnesota, so we played at Xcel Energy Center. This was kind of deja-vuish. Pretty awesome."

Vanderbilt coach Thomas Bernstein is thrilled to have Herzog on his team, which was also a long time coming. Due to military and family commitments, he did not play for Vanderbilt for his first 2 ½ years there as a student. It wasn't until late in the fall 2015 semester that he was permitted to play.

This spring, Herzog will complete his last semester at Vanderbilt University Law School.

"He carries himself with a confidence that's hard to replicate," Bernstein said. "He carries himself with the confidence that you would expect from someone that served his country and who has gone through the rigors of 2 1/2 years of law school."

As expected, none of the players came close to the numbers the NHL All-Stars will reach during the skills competition later Saturday. They couldn't care less. They were enjoying an unforgettable experience.

What was Herzog's favorite event?

"I'd say the slap-shot competition, but I was throwing muffins out," Herzog said after Vanderbilt's 18-11 victory. "Not too proud of that, but it's all fun. Just to get up and come down here, you can't start your day better than that."

Vanderbilt was joined on the ice by the University of Georgia club team. Players on each side were smiling from ear-to-ear throughout.

"We're very blessed that we have a relationship with the Nashville Predators in terms of our home rink and with inclusion in events," Bernstein said. "They needed a team that was mature enough to really be a true standard for the NHL All-Stars, and we were the local team that was the natural fit. We certainly were excited to jump on the opportunity."

"This was unbelievable," said Georgia sophomore Alex Carey, a native of Lawrenceville, Ga, about 40 minutes outside of Atlanta. "It's not something a lot of guys from the south get to do. Most of our team is from the Atlanta area, and the fact that we just got to do dress rehearsal for the NHL skills competition in Nashville is huge."

Georgia was fresh off a 4-0 win at Vanderbilt on Friday. Shortly after Christmas, Carey received an email asking if he and his teammates would like to participate in the dress rehearsal, rather than playing a second game Saturday.

It was a no-brainer.

"This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get on the ice before the All-Star Game, to go through all the skills, the same skill competition as [the NHL players] do … it's fun and it's great to be on the ice at Bridgestone Arena," Georgia coach Eric Linkowski said.

Saturday was clear evidence of how much hockey has grown in Nashville and its surrounding areas. Georgia now has its own facility on campus and draws close to 1,000 fans per game. The All-Star events taking place over the course of the weekend have completely taken the streets surrounding Bridgestone Arena.

"The Predators are the torch-bearer for hockey in the south," said Bernstein, a New Jersey native and former New York Rangers season-ticket holder. "The Thrashers left Atlanta, Florida is far enough away where it's sort of a different beast than the Southeast. Nashville really carries the mantle of leadership for hockey, and the Predators organization demonstrates that all the time with their commitment to the youth teams in the area."

"An unreal experience. Once in a lifetime. I think [Herzog] said it best; he's from the state of hockey, and yet he had to come to Nashville to experience this."

Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL

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