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ROBIN SHORT: Down where football matters, he starred on ice

Newfoundland Growlers photo/Jeff Parsons - Josh Kestner, shown here in action against the Worcester Railers earlier this season at Mile One Centre, has 14 points in 15 games entering tonight’s game against the Brampton Beast. Kestner was born and raised in Huntsville, Alabama, not exactly a hockey hotbed.
Newfoundland Growlers photo/Jeff Parsons - Josh Kestner, shown here in action against the Worcester Railers earlier this season at Mile One Centre, has 14 points in 15 games entering tonight’s game against the Brampton Beast. Kestner was born and raised in Huntsville, Alabama, not exactly a hockey hotbed. - Contributed

Growlers’ Josh Kestner hails from Alabama, where college football isn’t just a game, but a religious experience

It may surprise some, but Alabama has a bit of history when it comes to hockey, or, as it’s known in Al…a…bama, ice hockey.

The Birmingham Bulls toiled for three seasons in the old World Hockey Association, carving their own little niche in 1979 when owner John Bassett iced his “Baby Bulls,” a team with a half-dozen 19-year-old stars fresh out of Canadian junior hockey — Rick Vaive, Michel Goulet, Craig Hartsburg, Rob Ramage, Gaston Gingras and goalie Pat Riggin, all of whom who would be top picks in the ’79 NHL draft.

Bringing more star power to the Bulls that year was NHL veteran and Canadian international star Paul Henderson.

So ice, you see, was used for more than cooling Southern Comfort down in Dixie.

But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s still Alabama, land of Joe Namath, Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide. Football isn’t just a game. It’s a religious experience.

“Football in Alabama? It’s hard to explain if you haven’t experienced it,” says Josh Kestner. “It’s a different world. You can’t imagine it. We have the Titans two hours away in Nashville, and NFL games are fun to go to, but college football, especially in the south, is everything.”

Kestner is a bit of a rare bird back where he’s from, a hockey player from Alabama … Huntsville to be exact.

Of course, hockey isn’t that foreign to that city a couple hours north of Tuscaloosa, and home to the University of Alabama.

For almost 20 years now, the University of Alabama-Huntsville — the little sister to the ’Bama — has iced an NCAA DI hockey team, and Kestner, the Newfoundland Growlers’ high-scoring forward, is a product of the program.

So, too, is Edmonton Oilers goalie Cam Talbot, perhaps the best-known graduate of the Chargers.

But really, should we be shocked? The U.S. Sun Belt states are producing more and more hockey players. One of the best in the game, Auston Matthews, was born and raised in Arizona, and Philadelphia Flyers rearguard Shayne Gostisbehere, runner-up to Artemi Panarin for 2015-16 NHL rookie of the year, grew up in south Florida.

“The game is growing down in the south,” said Kestner, “and it’s great to see. We have a Southern Pro league team down there (the Huntsville Havoc, featuring Bonavista native Scott Trask), the Nashville Predators two hours north of us, (ECHL’s) Atlanta Gladiators three hours to the east.

“But you certainly wouldn’t think of hockey when you think of Alabama.”

Josh Kestner has been one of the Growlers’ top performers this season, averaging almost a point per game with seven goals and seven assists in 15 starts entering tonight’s game against the Brampton Beast (7 p.m., Mile One Centre).

He’s cooled off a bit — he hasn’t scored in seven games, though he has chipped in with five assists — but Kestner, now 25, was on fire with seven goals in eight games after joining the Growlers in late October.

Scoring has never really been a problem for the winger, who’s listed at 6-0 and 170 pounds. Through four years at UAH, he averaged a point every other game, and led the Western Collegiate Hockey Association — a conference which features “traditional” hockey schools such as Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Bowling Green — with 24 goals.

He was a nominee for the Hobey Baker Award as the top NCAA player last season, and in 2017.

Newfoundland Growlers photo/Geoff Hynes - Newfoundland Growlers rookie Josh Kestner has rebounded nicely from off-season shoulder surgery.
Newfoundland Growlers photo/Geoff Hynes - Newfoundland Growlers rookie Josh Kestner has rebounded nicely from off-season shoulder surgery.

Kestner’s road to the pro game — undrafted, he was signed to an AHL contract by the Toronto Marlies last spring following his collegiate career — is somewhat unique.

A minor hockey player who looked up to fellow Huntsville native Nic Dowd, a Washington Capitals regular after signing as an NHL free in the off-season, Kestner participated in a couple of hockey camps in Nashville.

Anxious to play a higher brand, Kestner moved north at age 17 to his father’s native Michigan, spending a year playing junior hockey in Flint.

The following season, he vied for a spot on the Tier II junior North American Hockey League’s Topeka, Kan., Pilots, but was a late cut.

It was then he got a call from Dan Rose, a Tier II junior coach in Sarnia, Ont., who had noticed Kestner at those Nashville camps.

“He offered me a tryout. It was free to play, and it was a great experience. I loved every minute of it,” Kestner said of his two seasons with the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Sarnia Legionnaires.

Between 2012 and 2014, he racked up 113 points in 91 regular season appearances, drawing the attention of his hometown UAH Chargers.

And then rest is history.

Kestner impressed the Toronto Maple Leafs’ organization so much they signed him to an AHL contract, but his introduction to the pro game this past spring was brief.

After three games — and his first pro goal — Kestner injured his shoulder and surgery kept him on the sidelines during the Marlies’ Calder Cup playoff run.

The injury also kept him out of the Growlers’ first half-dozen games this season.

“I couldn’t wait to get back into the swing of things,” he said. “I was really eager to get back on the ice right after surgery, but you can’t rush things. You have to do all the therapy.

“It’s been going good so far, but I still think there’s a lot of potential there for me.”

The Crimson Tide isn’t the only thing that’s rolling in Alabama.

Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email robin.short@thetelegram.com Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort

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