It’s been almost three months since seven WCHA schools announced plans to leave the conference and form their own league in the 2021-22 season.
The announcement caught UAH by surprise. The future of the WCHA was suddenly in doubt, which makes the future of Charger hockey uncertain.
UAH officials are confident they will find a new conference for hockey to play in, whether it’s with the WCHA, the Group of Seven, or elsewhere.
There haven’t been any formal talks with the Group of Seven to possibly be the new league’s eighth team, but if the WCHA dissolves, that’s where UAH would currently like to go. UAH head coach Mike Corbett says there are several factors that can change things further.
“For lack of a better term, the seven schools are looking to become free agents,” Corbett said. “There’s so many shoes that can drop. Whether it be overall realignment, the Alaska schools and their viability, and you have some other schools that many not be necessarily happy in the current league that they’re in. And you’ve got (independent) Arizona State, who can be a very viable player in the college hockey world.”
“The focus of most of our conversations right now are about having everything in place to have a good season,” said Cade Smith, who became UAH’s interim athletic director in June. “Now that we know at least where Alaska is for this season, it’s business as usual right now.”
In the meantime, UAH is preparing for future change by looking inward, reviewing the hockey program and its support structure.
“Anytime you have that opportunity to reassess what you’re doing, it can be a positive thing,” Smith said. “These are the things we think we’re doing well, but there are great opportunities for us to improve. At the end of the day, it’s how can we best impact the student-athlete experience of the 30 or so hockey players and every athlete we have on campus.”
The Group of Seven stated in their announcement that they want members who display “a level of institutional investment that demonstrates significant commitment to their hockey programs and facilities.”
Does this imply that, beyond geographical challenges, UAH does not invest enough in its hockey program?
UAH president Dr. Darren Dawson says the university’s financial support of the hockey program is above the WCHA average.
“For instance, we provide $560,000 for the hockey program’s base operating budget,” Dawson said. “That’s fourth out of the 10 teams in the WCHA. The average school in the league spends $433,359, so we’re well above average. Regarding athletic aid awarded to our players, we also rank fourth with a budget figure of $586,678. The average spent in this category for WCHA teams is $527,571.”
“The support has been great,” according to Smith. “We had a good meeting with some donors, and the outlook is really positive and committed. I don’t think people are worried. I think they’re just want to know what the next step is going to be so they can be all in.”
“Our alumni support is fantastic,” Corbett said. “Our alumni is giving more money to the athletic department than all the other teams combined.”
While that is good news, the rest of the college hockey world can only perceive what they see on game nights.
“I think one thing other schools want to see is a different commitment level to hockey,” Smith said. “And I think that’s fair.
“Whether their perception is reality or not, they want to see commitment in a different way. So we’re working now to define what that is, and then to make it evident that we’re committed to hockey.”
One sign many of taken for university commitment is a plan for a multi-use facility on campus that would be the new home for hockey, basketball, and volleyball. UAH president Dr. Bob Altenkirch, whom Dawson took over for last month, unveiled the plan back in April, and the University of Alabama System board of trustees approved the development’s addition to the campus master plan in June.
However, a new arena is still a long way from reality.
“It is our hope that we can move quickly on various aspects of the development, including the multi-purpose facility,” Dawson said. “However, the truth is that it will take private support for these developments, which takes time, and the planning and construction of such a facility is a lengthy process as well.”
“While the arena does show commitment to hockey, we can still show commitment to hockey right now,” Smith said.
The Chargers’ opening series at Propst Arena is October 26 and 27, starting WCHA play against league favorite Minnesota State. UAH has 14 home dates this season.
UAH athletics administration has been taking steps to increase attendance, which has slowly declined since its first season in the WCHA, and giving fans a better experience at the Von Braun Center.
UAH’s recent record at home has been poor (11-29-4 over the last three seasons), but there was no boost when the Chargers were playing better. There’s more to increasing attendance than just on-ice performance.
“We’re having meetings about how to make the fan experience better and more engaged,” Smith said. “Number one is trying to get a more intimate hockey venue, even though we’re in a large room. We’ve been working to change how general admission tickets work, and it’s not just all going to be in the upper bowl. We’re going to try to fill the lower bowl every night. That’s going to hopefully increase engagement to get people where they bleed from the bottom up instead of the opposite.
“The Pep Band is going to 100-plus, so they will have to move up to the upper bowl. I think there’s already some things that are going to be better just naturally.”
Smith said they are looking at having an emcee, somebody in charge of music, and somebody in charge of promotions and fan contests, to make they game more fun even for those who do not know much about hockey. The staff has also had meetings with the Huntsville Havoc, which has done well filling the arena, about fan engagement.
“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Smith said. “We’ve got somebody here in town who’s got a pretty good idea of how to do it. We can figure out what things work in the SPHL that are allowed with the NCAA.
“It’s not always about how much money do you put into it. Sometimes it’s about how many humans you have available to do things.”
The video streaming of home games is also getting a focus. “One thing we’ve talked about is hopefully having a partnership with the Havoc on some of their equipment, increasing our visibility.” Such improvements would include replays that would also be shown in the arena and different audience camera angles.
“We’re making some progress with just the quality of our cameras and the quality of the image that they’re able to stream.”
“We’re just trying to make things current, for lack of a better term,” Corbett said. “We’ve been trying to put the program on a level that we feel the WCHA is.”
When all is said and done, UAH is confident that the program will show that it will bring something to a conference and keep its place in Division I college hockey.
“I think we have a lot to offer,” Smith said. “Just the financial standing as an institution, I would think we are in probably as good a shape as anyone, if not better than most.”
“I think the place to start these conversations would be internally,” Dawson said. “We need input from our coaches and players. We also need to get the views of our hockey boosters on what they see as a direction for our program and the support they are willing to provide. We need to determine what is going to be in the best interest of the UAH hockey program for our long-range future, so that means we should be very deliberate about our plans and not get lured into a decision made in haste that would lead us to another dead end.”