What if Bama went varsity?

Alabama HockeyOn Tuesday, Arizona State surprised the college hockey world by announcing it was elevating its club hockey team to become the 60th program in NCAA Division I.

ASU will take over as D-I’s southernmost program from UAH by about a degree of latitude, although if you capitalize the S, UAH will hands down be the most Southern. There is a chance they may be joining us in the WCHA by 2017, although I would think the NCHC is more likely for the Sun Devils.

Naturally, not long after the press conference wrapped up in Tempe, speculation abounded on which will be the #nexthockeyschool in Division I. It includes the usual suspects: Navy, Rhode Island, Buffalo, Illinois.

Also, Alabama.

The Frozen Tide club team has been in existence since the 2005-06 season. The Tide is coached by former Charger Mike Quenneville, who played for UAH from 1987-89 during its first foray in Division I. Alabama plays in ACHA Division III and is a member of the South Eastern Collegiate Hockey Conference (SECHC), which is comprised of club teams from eight Southeastern Conference schools. The Tide won the 2012 SECHC championship at the Huntsville Ice Complex, and was runner up to Arkansas in 2013 and 2014. Alabama is 12-1 so far this season.

The Tide has seen growing support, with good crowds at their home in the Pelham Civic Complex (especially during the Iron Cup matchups with Auburn).

So what would happen if Alabama decides to make the jump to NCAA Division I?

Let’s be clear that there is no known discussion — or even rumor — of Alabama making that jump. For UA to even consider it, they would need to figure out answers to the three issues that come up for every prospective school that wants to join college hockey’s big time:

  • Money. Penn State got a $102 million donation from Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula to start up their team, their women’s hockey team, and build an on-campus arena. Arizona State raised $32 million in private donations. Where would the start-up funds come from? Is the school willing to budget $1-$1.5 million per year to support the program?
  • Place to play: The Tide could conceivably continue to play in Pelham, which is over 50 miles from the Tuscaloosa campus, as a start, but  I suspect they would need a true Division I facility in Tuscaloosa. Would they build an on-campus rink? Renovate Coleman Coliseum and add an ice sheet? Who would pay for that?
  • Appease Title IX: Penn State added women’s hockey to go along with the men’s team. Arizona State may add women’s hockey, or two other women’s athletic programs to stay in compliance. What would Alabama need to add, and how much would that cost?

One of the reasons this thought experiment is even possible is UAH. If the UAH hockey program had folded, it is hard to fathom Alabama adding an expensive sport like hockey when the closest Division I opponent is in Ohio (Miami, 550 miles). 150 miles to Huntsville? That’s much easier. Even with Huntsville, the Tide would have the same issue UAH has to deal with — lots of travel.

Could Alabama spur other SEC schools to add hockey, as some suggest may happen in the Pac-12 with Arizona State? That would involve similar investments at a number of schools, and you simply can’t count on that.

But suppose everything somehow aligns and Alabama announces that the Frozen Tide is joining NCAA Division I. What would this mean for UAH?

Obviously, as alluded to before, it means an in-state rival for the Chargers. Whether they’re in the same conference or not, it’s hard to imagine that the Chargers and the Tide would not meet four times a year because of the proximity alone. And it’s hard to imagine that it would not be a true rivalry, with loud, boisterous crowds for both. (I would think we’d get the Auburn faithful who despise everything crimson.) That would be fun.

Many UAH fans may resent the Tide because they represent the UA system, where a certain former chancellor did the Charger hockey program no favors. Now the Tide would get in on our turf? Heck no.

Then there would be the recruiting battles. Which school would capitalize more on the South’s growing hockey talent? While UAH head coach Mike Corbett maintains that we will still recruit everywhere, there’s no denying that keeping the best players from the South in the region would be a boon. Now add a team in Tuscaloosa, looking to take some of that talent. I’m not sure I can get behind that.

In the end, however, I can’t imagine Alabama hockey going varsity. Even for a big money school like Alabama, so much investment would be required just to start it up, and there’s no guarantee the return would be worth it.

UAH was able to make a niche for itself 30 years ago, turning a popular and successful club team into a Division II power and then back to Division I. We had the support and the facility to do it, but college hockey has changed so much since those days. We’ve been fortunate, and despite all we’ve been through, we’re still fortunate that we are able to build a Division I program today.

All I can say to those who think Alabama should be the next hockey school is: You can dream, and you can wish, but it’s harder than it looks. Much harder.

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