Aug 212016

These are grim days for college hockey in Alaska, as UAA and UAF hockey look to be on the chopping block in a period that UAA athletic director Keith Hackett called “very, very trying times” on Thursday.  The University of Alaska system released a report on Thursday that seeks to confront the potential complete general fund cut in athletics across the system.  The report’s options aren’t crystal clear, but I’ll give the rundown as I best understand it:

  1.  Athletics at either Fairbanks or Anchorage could have a complete cut — or both could be cut altogether.  These cuts are driven by a $50MM shortfall in the UA system that would likely cut General Fund contributions to Athletics by 50% in FY 2020 from FY 2016 levels and remove those contributions altogether by 2025.  College Hockey News reports that UAA will have to trim $1.7MM from its budget by July 2017 after already absorbing a $1MM cut last year.  UAA’s hockey operating budget is $1.9MM per Hackett, while the News Miner reports that UAF hockey costs are around $2.1MM.
  2. The UA system might approach the NCAA with a consortium model for athletics, with some sports playing in Fairbanks while others play in Anchorage.  This would allow UAF to keep skiing and rifle while UAA could keep basketball.  The issue with this is that teams would play under the Alaska banner, but students seeking to play these sports would have their academic choices limited by their sport assignment.  The two schools are 300 miles apart, so one can’t argue that playing and studying could be separated easily.  The two schools field teams in 23 sports, and the cuts would be down to “10+”, the NCAA minimum for Division II.  Ice hockey, skiing, and rifle are not sanctioned at the Division II level.
  3. Both schools would drop to Division II, ending the Division I-only programs and having all competition in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.  The expensive sports — mainly hockey — would be replaced by less-expensive ones (1/3 – 1/2 the cost) per the Alaska Dispatch News.


All is not bleak:

Hackett, though clearly frustrated by the impact budget cuts handed down by the Legislature will have on athletics, was quick to say that nothing in the report is finalized and actions by the Board of Regents aren’t limited to just those options.

“Everything is on the table, but there is no decision about programs at this time,” he said.

UA President Jim Johnsen released a statement:

“There is a lot to think about here with the options presented, but I am particularly pleased that these groups have stepped up, stayed with the charge, and generated not only what I asked them to evaluate, but they have put forward some innovative ideas to realign university resources.”

Graeme Strukoff looks toward the net from the point with Doug Reid low in the slot.  (Photo credit: Chris Brightwell)

Graeme Strukoff looks toward the net from the point with Doug Reid low in the slot. (Photo credit: Chris Brightwell)

If there’s a school that understands this situation, it’s UAH.  Alabama doesn’t have the same kind of fiscal problems that the State of Alaska does, but a $25MM cut was levied for the most recent budget by the Alaska state legislature and signed by the governor.  That decision is driving these cuts, which are not limited by any means to just athletics — academic programs are on the block as well.  All of this reminds me of a lot of the rumblings that I’ve heard from Tuscaloosa about how the programs shouldn’t try to compete and that UAH should keep athletics costs down.  I don’t think that this attitude has prevailed — UAH has added lacrosse, so cost containment overall wouldn’t appear to be an issue — but dividing and conquering has always seemed to be the way of the Alabama system.

It’s also very clear that state apportionments to education have steadily dropped over the last 20 years.  I remember when I was an undergraduate at UAH (I started 19 falls ago) that UAH’s general fund was sourced around 50% from money from Montgomery; for FY 2015, it was 21.3%.  (Note, that page is a rolling entry, so if you look at this in three years, the numbers will be different.)

It’s a difficult time for public higher education.  Our three schools have high travel costs due to being geographic outliers. We nearly lost our program; it would be a tragedy if UAA and/or UAF lost theirs.  With two of the three options ending hockey for at least one campus, this is pretty grim.  I don’t really see a reading of this where neither program is lost unless the general fun cuts come from other areas.  It feels very much like one program will go down, and I honestly expect both to be axed.

Public comment on Pathways has been sparse, especially in support of athletics.  Alaskans who love hockey, get out and make your voice heard — don’t confine your frustration to the USCHO Fan Forum.

Jul 152016

Minnesota State announced on Wednesday that they have applied to join the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, known variously as “the National”, the “NCHC”, or the “NaCHo”, both in terms of hoping for tasty, fatty calories or regret that it’s “nacho league”.  Either way, it was a bit of a surprise unless you’re an enterprising reporter who bet that he saw it coming and sniffed around and outed the truth.  It certainly seems that everyone knew that this (leak-cum-)-announcement was coming, because both the WCHA and NCHC had prepared statements: the WCHA sounded pretty disappointed and the NCHC’s public response was, I think, responsibly tepid.  Lastly, a public records request has elicited the publication of Mankato’s letter of interest.

Both Shane Frederick of The Free Press (Mankato) and Jack Hittinger of the Bemidji Pioneer have weighed in over the last couple of days.  Shane is predictably and responsibly sanguine about the Mavericks’ chances, noting that it is a benefit for the program.  Jack is a bit more phlegmatic, and he rightly points out that there are a lot of steps left to take for everyone.

Brad Schlossmann does note that the NCHC doesn’t have to add anyone.  But count me with Drew Evans at the Mavs are very likely to go to the NCHC in two seasons.

But what does all of this mean for UAH?

We’re on the outside looking in, again.  UAH tried to jump to the CCHA when the CHA diaspora happened and Bemidji grabbed a hold of a Maverick tail and rode along with Omaha into the WCHA.  We all know that the CCHA told UAH no, leading to three independent seasons that very nearly killed the program.  The Chargers knocked on the WCHA’s door only after the NCHC was fully realized.

The best thing out of the Big Ten expansion mess may have been that the NCHC formed, as I think that it was far less likely that the other nine teams in the WCHA would want the Chargers’ blood on their hands than, say, the remaining eight CCHA schools who might have been okay with that number and would have been unlikely to jump at the chance to add a flight/long bus trip to a bus league that already had an Alaska problem.

Make no mistake: the 2013 mess showed us that extant league structures mean nothing when conference plates shift violently.  Will our folks be talking to people?  Sure.  But we’re at the mercy of the winds and tides here along with a number of other WCHA schools.

I’ve got a lot of thoughts about realignment options and how UAH would fit into these plans, but those are for another day.  Bring on Realignment 2016.

May 192016

The WCHA released the league’s 2016-17 composite schedule on Thursday, and UAH revealed the Chargers’ full schedule right after.

UAH will play 34 regular-season games in 2016-17, including the 28-game conference slate. UAH will host 14 games — all WCHA contests — at the Von Braun Center.

The Chargers hit the road a lot in October, including the first three weeks when the season. It all begins in Big Rapids, Mich., with a WCHA series at Ferris State on Oct. 1-2.

Then comes a return trip to Connecticut on Oct. 8-9. UAH split the first series of last season with the Huskies in Huntsville by a pair of 5-2 scores.

UAH heads to Houghton for the first time since its 2015 WCHA playoff series to face Michigan Tech. The Chargers finally get their home opening series on October 21 and 22 against Lake Superior State.

The Chargers’ second non-conference series is at St. Cloud State, last season’s NCHC tournament champions, to finish off October.

UAH goes to Alaska Anchorage on Nov. 4-5, the first of two trips to Alaska this season. Then the Chargers spend three of the next four weeks at home, hosting Alaska Fairbanks (Nov. 11-12), Bowling Green (Nov. 18-19), and Ferris State (Dec. 3-4). Thanksgiving weekend will be UAH’s first off week after playing each of the first eight weeks of the season.

The Chargers get two more off weeks after a trip to Northern Michigan on Dec. 9-10, before spending New Year’s in Minneapolis at the Mariucci Classic. UAH’s opening opponent is to be announced, but besides host Minnesota, Massachusetts and Mercyhurst are scheduled to participate. UAH last appeared in the Mariucci in 2012.

Only 12 regular-season games take place in the second half of the season, half at home. UAH hosts MacNaughton Cup co-champions Minnesota State (Jan. 6-7) and Michigan Tech (Jan. 27-28), and rival Bemidji State (Feb. 10-11) to finish the home slate.

On Tuesday, the WCHA announced a new postseason format. The top eight teams qualify for the WCHA Playoffs, which begin with best-of-three quarterfinal series at the top four seeds. The top two remaining seeds will host best-of-three semifinal series, and the WCHA Championship will be decided in a single game played at the highest remaining seed.

Season ticket and Blue Line Club information will be released over the summer. For more information, call 256-UAH-PUCK.

Here is the 2016-17 UAH Charger hockey schedule. Home games are in bold. Games start at 7 p.m., except for Dec. 4 and Feb. 11, which start at 3 p.m.

Oct. 1-2 – Ferris State*
Oct. 7-8 – Connecticut
Oct. 14-15 – Michigan Tech*
Oct. 21-22Lake Superior State*
Oct. 28-29 – St. Cloud State
Nov. 4-5 – Alaska Anchorage*
Nov. 11-12Alaska*
Nov. 18-19Bowling Green*
Dec. 3-4Ferris State*
Dec. 9-10 – Northern Michigan*
Dec. 30-31 – Mariucci Classic at Minneapolis (Minnesota, UMass, Mercyhurst)
Jan. 6-7Minnesota State*
Jan. 20-21 – Lake Superior State*
Jan. 27-28Michigan Tech*
Feb. 3-4 – Alaska*
Feb. 10-11Bemidji State*
Feb. 24-25 – Bowling Green*

March 3-5 – WCHA Quarterfinals (best-of-3 at higher seeds)
March 10-12 – WCHA Semifinals (best-of-3 at higher seeds)
March 18 – WCHA Championship (at higher seed)
March 24-26 – NCAA Tournament Regionals
April 6-8 – NCAA Frozen Four (Chicago)

Apr 292016

College hockey realignment is heating up again. Fortunately, this time UAH hockey isn’t looking for a conference slot to save its life, but could it find itself in a better deal than it is now?

The first move in this round of conference shuffling started a month ago when the Big Ten accepted Notre Dame as a hockey affiliate member starting in the 2017-18 season, bringing the conference’s hockey membership up to seven.

Now the question is where will the Big Ten get an eighth hockey member (because leagues love even numbers). It was speculated that they could get Division I-newcomer Arizona State.

That’s not going to happen, according to reports on Monday, cutting the Sun Devils’ options between the WCHA and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Reports from College Hockey News and on Friday have the NCHC trending toward a deal with Arizona State, although NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton said nothing was imminent, while WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson has reiterated openly that they are pursuing the Sun Devils.

Arizona State is an interesting prospect. It just finished its first season as a varsity program, playing a mix of Division I, III, and club teams. The Sun Devils went 5-22-2 against NCAA opponents — three of those against WCHA opponents (one against Alaska-Fairbanks in Anchorage, and two in a sweep at Lake Superior State). They will play a full Division I independent schedule this coming season, and have been intending to play in a conference starting in 2017-18.

In the WCHA, ASU would hands down be the largest university in terms of attendance, with over 69,000 students, over four times more than the league’s current leader, Bowling Green. Arizona State would also join Bowling Green as the only full Division I athletic programs in the WCHA.

But there are questions. A big one is where ASU plays, or will play. The Sun Devils’ primary home has been Oceanside Ice Arena, which was renovated to a capacity of only 840, which would be the smallest in the WCHA. ASU played four games this season at Gila Bend Arena, home of the Arizona Coyotes, drawing over 5,000 twice. The Coyotes could partner with ASU on a new arena.

Then there’s travel. Arizona State would be added to a conference that’s primarily in the Midwest but already has two teams in Alaska and one in Alabama. ASU should be good with chipping in on the subsidies UAH and the Alaska schools provide to the rest of the league to cover the additional costs of visiting those areas, but how much extra mileage can the WCHA handle?

The current membership must be OK with the answers to these questions if Robertson is this public about pursuing them.

But if the WCHA adds Arizona State, where will it go to find a 12th member? (Again, leagues love even numbers.) Does it try to get Robert Morris or Niagara from Atlantic Hockey?

We’ll continue to monitor this during the summer. Meanwhile, there are a couple of realignment ideas that would be interesting from a UAH point of view.

Modest proposal: Fixing the WCHA

Drew Evans at wrote a column last week about fixing the WCHA in three steps. The second step was the conference expanding to 12 and going into divisions. Arizona State wasn’t one of the two teams he’d add, which is understandable given the questions above and, at the time, how unlikely ASU joining would be.

Evans suggests adding Robert Morris and either Mercyhurst or Niagara from Atlantic Hockey, and splitting the league into Western and Central divisions. Each division would have one Alaska school to spread the travel there, and UAH would be in the Central with Alaska, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Robert Morris, and Mercyhurst/Niagara.

The primary reason for this suggestion is travel management. Save for the Alaska team, most of a club’s travel within the division would be bus rides of no more than 12 hours (between Ferris State and Huntsville).

It’s an interesting idea, especially if the WCHA fails to get Arizona State.

More modest proposal: Return of the CCHA?

Chris Dilks at SBN College Hockey goes further, going beyond the WCHA. His plan to fix the Western conferences includes the formation of an 8-team conference with many members from the old CCHA, plus UAH:

  • UAH
  • Bowling Green
  • Ferris State
  • Lake Superior State
  • Miami
  • Michigan Tech
  • Northern Michigan
  • Western Michigan

There are few scenarios that would benefit UAH more than this setup, particularly in terms of travel. Sure, we’d lose rival Bemidji State as a conference foe, but to help the Chargers’ bottom line, it would be crazy for UAH not to accept this if it were presented.

With eight teams, this conference could play a 28-game schedule with every team playing each other home and away. It also leaves the door open for future expansion, perhaps including Robert Morris, Niagara, and/or Mercyhurst as Evans suggested. (Any of those three would still not be the furthest away from UAH in such a league.)

Dilks’s plan hinges on North Dakota joining the Big Ten as a hockey-only member, and the rest of the WCHA/NCHC and Arizona State coming together in a 10-team, two-division league. I don’t know if UND would go for joining the Big Ten, although North Dakota as a hockey-only Big Ten member makes more since than Rutgers and Maryland as full-time Big Ten members.

Realignment has been rumored to return from the moment the current league setup was agreed upon. Now we see if that time has come, and whether UAH can be all the better for it.

Apr 252016
Chad Brears

Chad Brears was this season’s Charger of the Year. (Photo by UAH Athletics/Doug Eagan)

On Thursday, the Chargers held their end-of-season banquet at Spragins Hall, honoring the 2015-16 squad and looking forward to next season.

The Chargers’ Most Valuable Player was Max McHugh. The sophomore led UAH in points for the second straight season, scoring 22 points on seven goals and 15 assists.

Senior Frank Misuraca was named the team’s Defensive Player of the Year for the second time. The alternate captain was second on the club with 63 blocked shots. He had an even plus-minus rating and scored one goal with four assists for five points.

The Freshman of the Year was Adam Wilcox. In 33 games played, Wilcox was tied for the team among freshmen with four goals, including one power play and one shorthanded tally. He finished with nine points on the season.

The Charger of the Year award, which goes to the player who exemplifies what it means to be a UAH Charger, went to Chad Brears. The senior and alternate captain from Cold Lake, Alberta led the Chargers in goals this season with nine, and was third on the team in assists (10) and second in points (19). He also led UAH in plus-minus (+6).

Sign up for the Frenchy Open: The 2016 UAH Hockey Frenchy Open will tee off at 8 a.m. on Saturday, June 25 at Hampton Cove Golf Course.

The golf tournament is the program’s biggest summer fundraising event. The tournament layout will be a four-player scramble with prizes going to the top three teams. Raffle and door prizes will be available.

Register online to reserve your spot. Registration per player is $150, which includes 18 holes of golf, a cart, a UAH Hockey shirt and hat, refreshments, and dinner. Full four-player teams can register for $600.

Sponsorship opportunities are also available. For more information, can call 256-824-2485 or email Nick Laurila.

In addition, there will be an UAH alumni hockey game at the Wilcoxon Municipal Ice Complex in Huntsville on June 24 at 7 p.m.

“The Frenchy Open” is named after Charger left wing Jean-Marc Plante, who died in 2001. Also known as “Frenchy,” the Laval, Quebec, native played for UAH from 1988-92, scoring 16 goals and 19 assists in 94 games. Plante worked at the front office of the Florida Panthers and became the athletic marketing director at UAH. A memorial scholarship is awarded in his honor to the Charger hockey player who demonstrates leadership, sportsmanship, and team spirit, and who participates in community and university volunteer service.

Rappleyea commits: Sean Rappleyea of South Amboy, N.J. committed to the Chargers for the 2016-17 season last week. The defenseman was an alternate captain this past season for the Ottawa Jr. “A” Senators of the Central Canada Hockey League.

This past season, Rappleyea led the Senators in 35 assists in addition to three goals scored. The CCHL Defenseman of the Year was scored a goal and eight assists in 16 playoffs games as the Senators reached the CCHL championship series.