The Chargers got the season in. This spring will determine if there will be more.
Ten months after the UAH hockey program was canceled and subsequently saved, the Chargers finished the 2020-21 season. They had only three wins, but the fact they played 22 games was a victory in itself.
“It was important for us to get through the season any way we could to play,” UAH head coach Lance West said. “We made so many road trips. We went to states with schools who wouldn’t travel here. Our university did everything it could to play the games, one, because we wanted to, and two, because of all the work that so many had put in and contributions so many people made to keep this program going. It’s about rebuilding the foundation of our program and I think our guys started to do that.”
UAH had a 2-5-1 start before being unable to play for about a month while having to deal with COVID-19, including a 10-day pause in activities. The Chargers, which had 14 freshmen on the roster, lost 13 of their last 14 games, but West said the pause was not the reason.
“Most of the teams we played finished in the top 20,” West said. “The level went up. We hung in there, but in most of those games we didn’t make the plays we needed to make.
“We were so young, but I was proud of the guys. They never quit in any game. Did we want more wins? Yes. Do we wish it finished differently? Yes. But they did a whole lot of great things and built the foundation and helped us at least move forward.”
The Chargers had some bright spots, such as goaltender David Fessenden becoming “Big Save Dave” to keep the team in games and Tyrone Bronte making the WCHA all-rookie team by leading UAH in scoring as a freshman. They also rewarded the UAH faithful with two thrilling wins over Ferris State in their first series back at the VBC.
UAH athletics director Cade Smith said he kept telling the athletics department, “Every time we got a chance to play, it was a win.”
“If you had told me back in October that our winter sports, including basketball, indoor track, and hockey, that they would make it all the way through the way that they did, I would have said, ‘I’ll take it.’,” Smith said. “I’m really proud of everything that we were able to get done as a department and each individual athletic team. Our training staff has been invaluable and unbelievable in what they have been able to do to get us through. We already knew that we had good people, and I think that was magnified through everything we had to go through.”
UAH had seven home games in Propst Arena at the Von Braun Center, limited to 30 percent capacity, and continued to work with the Huntsville Havoc on providing an engaging in-game experience.
“The Havoc were good, like last year, and took a huge burden off of us trying to get things done, because a lot of those people we would have had to hire independently,” Smith said.
Now the program turns to another uncertain offseason. With the WCHA era over, UAH is still working on securing a conference home so the program can secure that long-term stability. If UAH fails to join a conference, the hockey program will fold for good, as there are no plans to compete as an independent in the long term.
The new incarnation of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, which will comprise of seven other WCHA schools and St. Thomas starting this fall, has told UAH it will not be considered. The only feasible option for the Chargers is the Atlantic Hockey Association.
As part of its pitch to join the Atlantic Hockey, UAH is offering $25,000 per series for each team that travels down to Huntsville over 10 years.
Atlantic Hockey will discuss expansion at its June meetings. If the conference votes to expand, seven of the 11 members would have to agree on inviting an institution as a member. Should UAH be accepted, it could be up to two years before the Chargers can begin conference play.
Long Island University, which just finished its first season of men’s varsity hockey with a scheduling agreement with the Atlantic Hockey, is also looking to become a full-time member.
On the broadcast of the conference’s championship game on Saturday, Atlantic Hockey commissioner Robert DeGregorio Jr. said expansion “is on the agenda for the directors meeting in the spring. We also have a third school that we’re talking with. We’ll see what progress is going to be made. The directors have to look at a lot of things, not just the candidates.”
The third school DeGregorio referred to could be Navy, which has been rumored to upgrade hockey to varsity status soon and would join fellow service academies and rivals Army and Air Force.
DeGregorio said Atlantic Hockey would like to get back to 12 teams, but 14 teams is on the table for discussion. “They have a lot of things to talk about regards to expansion, nothing that’s been predetermined,” he said.
“I sent letters out to two of the schools, letting them know that it will be on the agenda for the directors in the spring. We’ve got to update our protocols for what we use for membership, which I’m in the process of doing for the executive committee as well as the rest of the directors. Hopefully, everything is going to be reviewed favorably and the discussions will determine the direction we go.”
Smith said he received the letter from DeGregorio last week. UAH hopes to have an answer on joining Atlantic Hockey as soon as possible, so that the program and the student-athletes can prepare for either result.
We could know by the end of spring whether the Chargers can truly build upon their new foundation.