Alex and Christian Regan came to the United States to play ice hockey, but they might end up staying in Charleston for the fried chicken and sweet tea.
The twins made the 8,300-mile trek from Auckland, New Zealand, to the Lowcountry to play junior hockey for the Charleston Colonials. Their goal is to catch the eye of a college scout and earn an athletic scholarship. The 18-year-old brothers might never leave the Lowcountry because of the city's Southern hospitality or its food.
“It seems like every time we go out and eat, it’s a new experience for us,” said Alex, a defenseman for the Colonials. “We don’t have Chick-fil-A or (Raising) Cane’s or Bojangles in New Zealand. The chicken here is fresher, so much better than in New Zealand. The portions are bigger here, too. It’s taken us a while to get used to it, but it’s great.”
The Colonials are an expansion franchise in the U.S. Premier Hockey League, which has more than 60 teams across the country. The players range in age from 16 to 20. The USPHL serves as a primary developmental and feeder league for higher level junior leagues in the U.S. and Canada. It also serves as a showcase for college scouts and coaches to find players.
Alex and Chris are members of the Charleston Colonials’ Elite squad. The Colonials have two teams – Premier and Elite – that play out of the Carolina Ice Palace.
“Kids that come here are looking to develop and eventually play in a higher junior league or play for an NCAA program,” said Carolina Ice Palace general manager Matt Mons, whose son Blake is a goalie for the Colonials' Premier team. “Older kids are probably looking to play in college and the younger kids are trying to get better and move onto a higher junior league.”
The Colonials, which have their home opener Saturday night against the Florida Junior Blades at the Ice Palace, are coached by former Stingrays player Hunter Bishop.
The Regan brothers' journey to South Carolina began last year during a tournament in Bulgaria. Alex and Chris were playing for New Zealand’s U-18 team and caught the eye of an area scout.
“I started to watch them play on-line and it’s tough to see how fast they were or how skilled they were, but I felt like they had the mechanics to play for us,” said Bishop, who played for the Stingrays during the 2012-13 season. “They’ve completely exceeded our expectations of what I thought they could do for us. They’ve both been leaders from the get-go and both are unbelievable people. They’ve been a really positive dynamic for our Elite club.”
New Zealand has a small but enthusiastic ice hockey community, and there are only a half-dozen rinks scattered across its North and South islands. Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city with a population of more than 1.6 million.
Like many junior hockey players across the U.S. and Canada, the twins are living with a local family. It's a practice called "billeting" and involves a local home owner providing room and board for a small monthly fee. The Regans and two of their hockey teammates are staying with Ryan and Erica Gorby in Summerville.
"The Gorbys have been great," Alex said. "We feel like we're a part of their family."
The Regans are longtime NHL fans and had heard of the South Carolina Stingrays, Charleston's ECHL team, but knew very little about the Lowcountry.
“When we landed in Houston, the immigration official asked us why we were here and when we said we were playing hockey in South Carolina, he kind of laughed,” said Christian, who admitted he wasn't aware that the state isn't exactly a hotbed for hockey.
The brothers also didn't know about the heat. The temperatures reach the mid-80s on the hottest days of summer in Auckland. It’s been 90 degrees and humid since they arrived in mid-September.
“We landed at the airport in Charleston around midnight and it was hotter than any day in Auckland,” Alex said.
The food and climate aren't the only things the brothers are adjusting to. Driving with the Regans can be an adventure. When Alex got behind the wheel of a car recently, he didn't think twice about about motoring along on the left side the street, shocking his American teammates sitting in the back seat.
"You guys drive on the wrong side of the road," Alex said with a chuckle.
The hockey is different as well.
“It’s a lot more competitive,” Chris said. “In New Zealand, you might have four or five guys on a team that are good, and here everyone, every line and every defenseman is good.
“It’s a quicker, more physical game,” he added. “You have to read and react a bit quicker. In New Zealand, you can’t hit a guy if he doesn’t have the puck and here you have to keep your head on a swivel because you never know where the hit might come from.”
The Colonials have players from up and down the East Coast on their roster. But Bishop said keeping the top talent from the area was a point of emphasis for the coaching staff.
Local players Marco Pineda (Hanahan), Brennan Trippe (Summerville), Nick Kaye (Mount Pleasant), Matthew Rhodes (Summerville) and Mike Volmert (Goose Creek) had opportunities to play for other junior teams, but chose to stay in the Lowcountry.
“We have the best talent in Charleston here on the team and they are playing prominent roles,” Bishop said. “The more success our local players can have here, the better. It’s an opportunity for local guys to play at a high level without leaving home. They didn’t have that before.”