Graduating with Connors: Seniors reflect on time at UAH

As the only two seniors on the 2020-21 Chargers, Connor Merkley and Connor Wood have experienced quite a lot at UAH. They have seen thrilling victories, grueling road trips, and the cancellation and resurrection of the program, and that’s just for starters.

The two will be honored at Senior Day, the Chargers’ final home game of the season, on Sunday against Bowling Green at the Von Braun Center. Opening puck drop is 3:07 p.m.

Photo by Todd Thompson/RiverCat Photography

Connor Merkley

A native of Portland, Ontario, Canada, Connor Merkley is one of many to come to UAH from the Carleton Place Canadians in the CCHL.

“Making the jump to NCAA hockey is no short leap by any means for anyone,” Merkley said. “In NCAA hockey, everyone is here for a reason. At the beginning it was definitely a learning experience for me, but I think the biggest thing for me was just having confidence in myself and my own abilities. Once you make that adjustment, you just need to be sure of yourself and find your role as you continue to move forward.”

Merkley got plenty of chances to adjust from the start, playing in 35 games in his freshman year. His first collegiate goal came on November 11, 2017, in thrilling fashion against Alaska Anchorage, tying the game with less than a second remaining in regulation.

“That’s one moment that will stick with me, I’m sure,” Merkley said. “That was my first career collegiate goal, and my family had made the road trip down. I had my parents, both of my sisters, and my brother-in-law there, so that was exciting to have them in the stands and share that moment with them.”

That was just the start of his memories at UAH.

“I enjoyed playing in the playoffs the two times that we played,” Merkley said. “My freshman year against Northern Michigan was exciting, where we went to game three and had a good chance in that series. Playing against Mankato (the following season), as much as it wasn’t the result we wanted, it was just the challenge of playing against such a well-run team, and as a hockey player you want to play against the best players.”

In 110 career games at UAH, Merkley has nine goals and 13 assists for 22 points. This season, Merkley has only played in nine games, scoring one goal. He’s missed the last eight with a knee injury, but he’s hopeful that he will play on Sunday.

Speaking of adjustments, Merkley says the Chargers have been able to weather through the pandemic, which has led to several schedule disruptions, as best they can.

“You have to stay in the moment within what you are doing in your daily activities,” Merkley said. “You can’t really let outside noise or anything going around affect what you’re doing and take it day by day. It’s been a roller-coaster for sure trying to just stay the path, but it’s one of those situations where everyone is fighting through the same thing.”

Merkley is a kinesiology major graduating this year. He was named to the WCHA all-academic team last season. Merkley said the pandemic has made his near-future plans unclear: “I’m not sure whether I’m going to continue playing hockey or pursuing school, but it’s hard to get a grip on what anything is going to bring in the future.”

Merkley is optimistic for the future of the UAH hockey program, and grateful for the opportunity the program has given him.

“Last summer, we experienced some things you don’t wish to go through as a player and a program, but the school and the alumni and the new coaching staff have a great vision for what is to come in the future,” Merkley said. “The direction of the team is going to be great with the all the support. The biggest thing right now is to get into a conference. Whatever conference that we end up joining, UAH has some big things ahead of them.

“There’s been lots of people over the course of my career that have helped me. I’m grateful for the opportunity that UAH has given me to be able to follow my dreams and be able to play Division I hockey. I’m grateful to all the support staff, from the coaches that I’ve had to the equipment manager Damon Wheeler, to the athletic trainers. It’s hard to step away from your family and go away on 18-plus-hour road trips and support the team. I’m also grateful to my professors and everyone within the UAH kinesiology department who have made me have a good experience with going to school full time as well as playing hockey.”

Photo by Todd Thompson/RiverCat Photography

Connor Wood

Two things make Connor Wood stand out on the ice: His flowing golden hair and getting under the skin of his opponents.

The Buford, Georgia native has also been looked at as one of the leaders to this season’s roster and its 14 freshmen.

“It was really weird at first with so many new faces, but as time went on it’s really interesting how fast we got close,” Wood said. “Some of my best friends on the team this year are freshmen. I really like that about our team, that we have that kind of dynamic where it doesn’t matter what year you are, we’re all friends. It’s really cool for me to see them learn things that I also learned as a freshman. You see them understand as the year goes on what we talk about and them grow as players.”

“As you grow up playing games, you get more confident,” Wood said, comparing his game today to his own freshmen experiences. “You feel more confident with the puck at this level. In my freshman year, I’d probably be more panicky with the puck on the wall, whereas you get older you settle in and know what to expect.”

That confidence has carried through a tough year with the salvaging of the program and the pandemic.

“Going back to last summer, that was definitely an emotional week,” Wood said. “For me, being a senior, I didn’t want to have to go anywhere else. I was very excited to finish out my college career here.

“Getting two weekends cancelled and then having to make those up, which resulted in four games in five days on the road, aren’t usually things you have to worry about. It’s difficult, but we battled through it.”

Wood has played 96 games as a Charger, scoring six goals and 13 points. Some of his favorite moments as a Charger have come recently, namely the sweep of Ferris State at the VBC in January and snatching a win over then 15th-ranked Bowling Green on the road two years ago. Sometimes the best memories are also your first.

“My very first college game was pretty exciting at Notre Dame,” Wood said. “Really good team, cool rink. Just a very cool experience to get to play in your very first one.”

Wood is a two-time member of the WCHA all-academic team, majoring in business marketing. Last season, he was named a WCHA Scholar-Athlete. He too isn’t sure what the future holds for him. He might exercise the fifth year of eligibility the NCAA is allowing all winter-sport athletes because of the pandemic, go for a master’s degree, or continue playing in Europe or wherever the opportunity presents itself.

Whatever he wants to do, he knows he has the support from the network of Charger hockey alumni.

“That’s one of the more special things about UAH: It’s very close-knit,” Wood said. “I had an alum after we swept Ferris — I hadn’t talked to him I don’t think — he found my number and he texted me and reached out. Guys who graduated 20 to 30 years ago still just care so much and will help anyone who has come through the program. I think that’s really special, because I don’t think a lot of programs really have that.”

Wood is also confident UAH will get into a conference after this season because of that alumni push.

“Our alumni are doing an outstanding job of doing whatever they can to make sure we stay around and have a competitive team,” Wood said. “I have a lot of trust and faith in those guys and I think they’re going to come through big time for us and get us a place to play and keep UAH hockey alive.”

For now, Wood is grateful for his time in Huntsville.

“I just want everyone to know how thankful I am, to the school itself for giving me an opportunity, all the friends I’ve made, the memories I have made. They gave me an opportunity to play college hockey and a lot of chances to grow as a player, especially the coaches this year seeing me as a leader. I’m really thankful for everything I’ve gotten at UAH and getting an education along the way.”