Back when Huntsville was covered in snow, Joe Paisley of the Colorado Springs Gazette emailed me for an interview about the state of the hockey program. The resulting article that quotes me and Coach Luongo has hit the presses, and I found that my comments were mashed up in a way that didn’t leave me very satisfied. This being the Internet, and me being a “blogger” in Mr. Paisley’s parlance, I will reprint his questions in bold-face type and my answers below. The below will be exactly as asked and written; the only thing removed is the “who are you and where do you write” question, which I don’t consider germane to this. His quotes of me will also be in bold-face type.
Is the program’s future a cause for concern?
I would be lying if I said that the potential of losing varsity hockey at UAH didn’t bother me. UAH Hockey was an essential part of my collegiate experience, to the point that I paid my own way to travel around the country to broadcast games in 2002-3 after I had graduated. Hockey is the only Division I sport at the university, and it’s the sport where we’ve seen the most success. Will and I started the Save UAH Hockey stuff within 12 hours of the CCHA making their rejection public.
Is the usual presumed athletic budget crunch part of that equation?
It has to be a part of it. We’re a Division II school playing a Division I sport. Moreover, we’re playing a sport that isn’t played elsewhere in our state, which means that it’s hard to get state money to support the program. If there was money in the state budget to build UAH an on-campus rink and convocation center, we’d be in much better shape.
I think the best analog for UAH’s situation is Bemidji State. The Beavers were in very dire straits in 2006 and 2007. The money just wasn’t working for them to have a program at the D-I level because of the travel costs involved in playing in a conference with teams in Colorado, Alabama, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York. They had been working with state legislators in St. Paul for years to get a bond levied to build a hockey facility in Bemidji. They hit a window of opportunity when everything was right for it, and they got the bonding agreement. They had to work with the city to get a half-cent sales tax approved to make the financing work, and that was a close call as well. All of that work culminated in the Bemidji Regional Events Center, which was their ticket into the WCHA.
If UAH had been able to get a rink built in time—and there have been three or four really solid efforts over the last decade, including one that I really thought was going to happen within 3-6 months—I think the CCHA bid would have stood a much better chance. The travel issue is certainly there for the smaller CCHA schools, especially now that it looks likely that they’ll lose their Big Ten cash cows.
Is the program waiting for the Big Ten shoe to drop officially?
I think everyone out west is waiting for that shoe to drop. How will it happen? CCHA coaches are pushing for a superconference where the Big Ten schools are one six-team pod in the conference. Unfortunately, the CCHA coaches who talk about this always mention 24 teams, which leaves UAH as an independent. I think WCHA officials would be happy with some kind of interlocking schedule with the BTHC and CCHA that has them get non-conference games with Wisconsin and Minnesota.
At the end of the day, the Big Ten schools drive the bus. If they decided to just go it alone and play an insular conference schedule, they could do that and make a lot of money. It’s not as if any of the BTHC schools would have problems getting non-conference dates, and they’d probably want them with name teams. I expect that CC, DU, and North Dakota wouldn’t have problems getting dates, but Mankato, UNO, and Duluth might.
I do know that most of the WCHA coaches are really pushing to make sure that UAH isn’t left out in the cold. Tom Serratore at Bemidji is probably the loudest of those voices. I know that Bruce McLeod is a supporter of the program as well.
Has the program approached Atlantic Hockey?
It’s my understanding that UAH has had contact with all five conferences. I think it’s reasonably well-known that two Atlantic Hockey schools, thought to be Canisius and Mercyhurst, asked their league for permission to go to the CHA with the request that they be readmitted without question if our league folded. They were not granted this, so they didn’t leave.
If the worst case for the CCHA happens—Big Ten conference forms, no interlock with the three western conferences, and an insular schdule—I will be curious to see if the CCHA approaches UAH or any of the Great Lakes area AH teams about membership. I don’t know that it will happen, but I could see it.
Is there plenty of fan support in the community?
Alumni support is there as well?
We’ve got solid alumni support. General fan support is waning a bit with all of the uncertainty. In the Division II days, UAH routinely won by three or more goals. Those games were fun for everyone, feeling like you’d come away with a win. Earlier in the D-I days, UAH still had a great team, and so you felt like they’d win at least 60% of the time. As the CHA’s days were numbered, it became harder to get both recruits and home games. Attendance has waned as a result.
It would be very easy to expect that UAH’s 3-19-2 record has everything to do with the woeful attendance in 2010-11, but what’s not clear from the outside is that the Von Braun Center arena has been under renovation for the entire season. It’s not entirely clear where you even enter the facility. Very few things in the renovation are fully finished, and it’s really a hassle.
Describe the state of the UAH hockey program in 5 years. In 10 years.
The key for a medium-term outlook for the program has to be conference membership. I think that UAH can survive for a few years as an independent. We’ve been able to schedule a solid schedule for next year, and we’ve got a number of good commitments out for the next four seasons. That said, there has to be an end to this. D-I hockey is not set up for independents these days with the insularity of conference schedules. UAH also struggles with getting home games in general, and any games at all past mid-February. UAH had their last true home series of the season last weekend, and the last home games of any sort are this weekend in Nashville against Merrimack. UAH ends their season before Valentine’s Day. Teams with conferences will play at least three more weeks after that.
For a long-term outlook, UAH will have settled into whatever conference home that they have found and have a program full of recruits who’ve known that they have a conference home. Those players would either have a new home rink or see it being built as they leave the dorm and go to class.
As I consider that entire review to be on the record, I have no problems providing the full text of my remarks. As always, please be clear: these words and those that you see on this site are my personal opinions, and they do not represent the opinions of anyone at UAH, from Dr. David Williams on down to the young kid who helps our equipment manager during games. I’m an alumni and a booster, and my on-record comments reflect that background.