By Lezlie Patterson
Six weeks ago, the South Carolina and Clemson hockey teams fought a couple of hard battles on the ice. Both games were decided by one goal – one in overtime – and each team took a win. There were 18 goals, and 38 penalties. There was a lot of hard hitting and trash talking, the type of play fans expect when two archrivals play hockey , the sort that makes them assume the players really don’t like each other very much.
That would be a wrong assumption, at least when it comes to the Gamecocks’ Eric Patterson and the Tigers’ Austin McCall. After that game, like others the duo has competed in, the two were found talking as soon as the buzzer sounded, posing for photos as they chatted like the long-time friends they are.
Patterson, a junior forward for the Gamecocks, and McCall, a junior forward for the Tigers, will face each other again Friday night, when Clemson plays USC for the third time this season, this time at The Plex in Irmo.
They’ve lost count of the number of times they’ve been on the ice together – both as competitors and teammates.
“We’ve played against each other a lot,” Patterson said, “when we were younger, in high school (even while playing together on the Cyclones team) and now, in college. We play hard against each other, and we both want to win. But I’ve never thought about letting it ruin our friendship.”
Patterson and McCall have been friends since they played against each other as 9-year-old roller hockey players. They were friendly rivals for years, until Greenville’s 18-and-under travel team disbanded and Patterson persuaded McCall to play for his Columbia Cyclones squad.
“I always liked Austin, and really respected his ability,” Patterson said. “I both liked playing against him because he’s such a good player, and hated playing against him, for the same reason. But I really liked getting to play on the same team with him. He’s one of my favorite linemates I’ve ever had.”
Brian Bauman, the Cyclones coach at the time and USC’s former coach, said it was a pleasure to have Patterson and McCall playing together on his team.
“Eric and Austin brought different styles to the rink,” Bauman said. “They complimented each other unlike any of the other players in the league.”
McCall and Patterson were a dynamic duo on that team that eventually played in the USA Hockey National Championship tournament in Lansing, Michigan. Add Chip Ellis from Charleston, Austin Brown from Florence and Julian DiPaolo, now a sophomore on USC’s squad, and Bauman had what he considered one of the best lines in the country.
“I was able to have a line out there at anytime and knew something good would happen,” Bauman said. “It was definitely the most cohesive team I have had the pleasure of coaching.”
Combined, McCall and Patterson led the team in scoring and to the Carolinas League Championship with a 17-2-1 record en route to Lansing. Each lists that as one of their favorite seasons.
Bauman too. He remembers the final game that year, an overtime loss to Oklahoma City in the National tournament.
“I will never forget the time we spent in the locker room after,” Bauman said. “The boys spent about two hours in there going through the loss together.”
In fact, for a few days after that loss, Patterson and McCall insisted they were going to put their college hockey careers on hold for a year, so they could play another season together for the Cyclones.
But with time, each realized that part of their hockey days was over, and as freshmen both became important parts of their college teams.
They did get one more opportunity to play together. It meant giving up a large chunk of their Christmas break and driving to south Florida for a holiday tournament during their freshman college years. They didn’t hesitate and agree it was worth the trip.
Now, they’re back playing against each other on rival teams.
“Overall, the relationship we have is pretty phenomenal if you think about it,” McCall said. “It runs way back to the youth hockey days, through high school and now the collegiate level.”
Their friendship has transcended the ice. Both have traveled back and forth for visits, both before and after college.
What made them such good friends even before being teammates? “I don’t remember exactly why – it was a long time ago — and I really can’t explain it,” Patterson said. “You can’t help but respect Austin. He’s a great player, and he works hard every minute he’s on the ice. And off the ice, he’s just a great guy who’s a lot of fun to be around.”
Earlier this season, USC beat Clemson 5-4 in overtime in Greenville. The next night, Clemson defeated the Gamecocks 5-4 in Irmo. That ended an eight-game win streak the Gamecocks had against the Tigers.
When the Gamecocks and Tigers play at 9:15 p.m. Friday at The Plex in Irmo, McCall comes in as Clemson’s points’ leader with 15. Patterson is tied as USC’s points’ leader with 16.
“Playing against Eric is more of a bittersweet thing,” McCall said. “On one side, it’s always great to see one of my good friends and play the game that we love the most. On the other side, as soon as we step on the ice we have to become complete enemies, especially considering the Clemson-USC rivalry.
“It’s also pretty tough considering he’s one of my favorite linemates that I’ve ever played with.”
Regardless of how the game ends, the two end up on friendly terms as soon as the buzzer sounds. They indulgently pose for pictures that their moms (also good friends) insist on taking of them together. If their hockey schedules allow, they usually end up spending the weekend together after the games. After one contentious late night game in Greenville two years ago, McCall and Patterson ended up going to eat at a Waffle House together – each taking several current teammates with them. By all accounts, all had a good time.
“Eric is an awesome guy, a fantastic hockey player and an even better friend,” McCall said. “At the end of the day, the friendship is what matters the most.”