Giving back: Generosity of Havoc and its fans give Huntsville a big win

single-meta-cal March 2, 2018

City Blog is taking a look at the good work performed by corporate citizens. Today: The Huntsville Havoc, the professional hockey organization led by owner Keith Jeffries and president Ashley Balch. Through its fans, the Havoc has funneled more than $1 million toward charitable causes in the community.

A bunch of tough guys, some of whom would be exchanging punches with other tough guys 30 hours later, some no longer blessed with their original-issue teeth, were in a rather serene atmosphere.

Wielding paint brushes instead of hockey sticks, these players were being instructed in the art of water color, with deep blues and perky yellows to create masterpieces that mimicked a skyscape on display.

They were joined by a bunch of tough kids – local youngsters who are undergoing treatment through St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.

On Saturday’s St. Jude’s Night, as the Havoc plays Macon, the art work will be auctioned to fans to benefit St. Jude’s.

We can give our fan base and opportunity to give and they do. They’ve proven to be incredibly generous.”

The Huntsville Havoc has become synonymous with the Melissa George Neonatal Memorial Fund for Huntsville Hospital, for which it has raised almost $600,000 over the past 12 years. But the Havoc has become involved with numerous charitable efforts, to the tune of more than $1 million contributed to various entities. Its St. Jude’s Night last year, which included a walk and a jersey auction, was among the top 10 fund-raising events nationally for St. Jude’s in 2017.

Havoc owner Keith Jeffries quickly deflects the praise.

“I’m not a rich guy. I can’t write big checks,” he says. “But we can give our fan base an opportunity to give and they do. They’ve proven to be incredibly generous.”

“I’m amazed every year with the hockey fans in Huntsville, how generous they are, how big their hearts are,” says Amy George, co-founder with husband Chris of the Melissa George Foundation.

Melissa George Foundation is long-time beneficiary

Not long ago, Amy and Chris were at a Havoc game and she looked up to see a row of six people seated together. Each wore a pink-and-blue trimmed Havoc jersey, each from a different year, each purchased through an auction after a Melissa George Foundation Night.

In 2005, Amy prematurely gave birth to twin daughters. Melissa Suzanne passed away only a few hours after her birth. Ann Catherine, now a versatile athlete on the cusp of teenager-dom, spent 68 days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Huntsville Hospital. (She has a younger sister, Lily Baker; the two girls are active participants on the Foundation’s night with the Havoc.)

Looking for an avenue to give back to Huntsville Hospital and the NICU, the Georges found a fan base always wanting to give. In many ways, fans were paying tribute to a couple who had become almost like family through Amy’s previous job as a WHNT anchor and with Chris playing five seasons of pro hockey here, with his uniform number eventually being retired.

“That’s why (the Foundation Night) has done more than others, because there is a connection to hockey,” Jeffries says. “Chris was a popular guy. He and Amy have taken a tragedy and turned it into something beneficial for others.”

“The Havoc is one of the most generous organizations that we have ever been involved with,” Amy says. “They approached us after we started Melissa’s fund because of Chris’s connection and they came up with the jersey auction.”

All told, the auctions have raised $589,472 in the 12 years. This year brought in some $61,000, including a $10,000 bid from a former owner of one of the Havoc’s rival teams, who in turn presented the jersey to a local person.

Havoc players are taken on a tour of the NICU to see first-hand what the hospital does and Chris gives a brief pregame talk each year.

“This is an event that means as much to their organization as it does to our family,” Amy says.

Havoc has 14-year history of success

Huntsville’s hockey story is unique to the South. Pro hockey has been in existence for a quarter-century. UAH has the lone NCAA intercollegiate program in the South and won two NCAA Division II national titles. Jared Ross, who grew up here as father Doug coached UAH, became the first Alabama-born NHL player. Nic Dowd, born and raised here, currently plays for the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks.

The Havoc has proved to be the most enduring pro sports franchise in the City. Established by Jeffries 14 years ago, after a couple of other hockey teams folded, it continues to draw huge crowds with a league-leading average of 4,649.

“It probably helped that I didn’t know anything about hockey,” he says. “We haven’t made this about hockey.”

Jeffries and his front office team, led now by president Ashley Balch, focus on the fan experience, promotions and sales. Coach Glenn Detulleo handles the personnel aspect; it’s been his mandate from Jeffries to find “players with the right character,” the sort of tough guys with soft enough hearts to sacrifice a free afternoon to paint with young cancer patients.

“Fourteen seasons. That’s crazy,” Jeffries says, sitting at the desk in his office at the VBC. “And I can’t imagine not being here 14 years from now.”

Fourteen more seasons where a sports franchise and its benevolent fan base combine to make this city a richer place.