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UAH suspends hockey program while conference search continues

The University of Alabama in Huntsville has not yet found a announced on Wednesday that it was suspending its varsity hockey program for the 2021-22 season, citing the inability to find a new conference home.

UAH said in its press release that if and when it finds a conference affiliation, it will reinstate the program.

The program was saved from cancellation last spring when donors from all over contributed more than $750,000 in a span of four days so that the Chargers would play the 2020-21 season while searching for a league.

In November, the university, in a partnership with an alumni group headed by Taso Sofikitis and Sheldon Wolitski, pledged $17 million over 10 years to turn the program into a sustainable model.

However, that model was dependent on whether UAH could find a new conference to play in. Originally, the deadline to secure a berth was March 1, but it was extended to May.

EDITORIAL: Delays in the league search put UAH in a bind

A source told Penalty Box Radio’s Justin Bradford that there was an option for the Chargers to play independently next season with donors offering to pay for everything except for scholarships, but the school suspended the program instead.

UAH had submitted proposals to the new Central Collegiate Hockey Association and Atlantic Hockey. The CCHA turned down UAH, and Atlantic Hockey is expected to discuss expansion in its meetings in June.

If Atlantic Hockey accepts UAH, the school said it would be a year before the Chargers are eligible for conference play. That is to be expected as Division I schedules for the 2021-22 season are close to finalized.

Smith said the AHA plans to hold those meetings virtually and spread them out over weeks, with expansion just being one of the topics.

“They have not given us a date on when they would complete those meetings or give us an answer,” UAH athletics director Cade Smith said. “They think the meetings might end in June.”

As for why the decision to suspend was made now instead of after the AHA meetings, Smith said, “If we have to make this decision in two months, that makes it harder on our current players than the decision right now in order to give them more time.”

As part of its pitch to join Atlantic Hockey, UAH is offering $25,000 per series for each team that travels down to Huntsville over 10 years.

“The proposal that (Wolitski and Sofikitis) along with us put together is really strong,” Smith said. “A proposal that seemed like a home run, and a lot of people agree with us. They can’t even believe that’s the proposal we’ve put forward as far as the funding model and the things we’re doing for teams that come here.”

Yet concerns about UAH remain.

“Things that always come up when conferences are talking about realignment and expansion is their geographical footprint,” Smith said. “We can’t control where we are and they can’t control where they are. I will agree that the lack of not doing things correctly over history as an athletic department has hurt us. Our not being as competitive as we should have been over time has hurt that.”

Smith said another concern they have heard is teams do not want their chances of getting their conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament to decrease with another member.

Smith said the administration initially talked about being an independent, but as UAH learned as an independent from 2010-13, it’s difficult to recruit, schedule enough home games, and secure postseason opportunities.

UAH head coach Lance West said his focus is helping the student-athletes with their next steps, whether it be finding a new place to play or helping them get their degree at UAH.

“My plans are to help every one of our student athletes find the best place for them, whether if it’s to stay at UAH and get their degree or pursue other opportunities,” West said. “It’s an emotional time. I’ve known Taso and Sheldon for over 20 years and know what it means to them. I know how much effort everyone’s put in. It’s hard for a coach because you care about the kids. You have to put the emotions to the side right now and just deal with the kids. And that’s what I’m going to do.”

Smith said the players were informed about the program suspension by West as the press release went out on Wednesday.

Two Chargers have already entered the NCAA transfer portal: Goaltender David Fessenden, who is heading to New Hampshire, and forward Quinn Green.

Two players had announced plans to transfer to UAH from the portal: UMass Lowell defenseman Dominick Precopio and Ohio State forward Matthew Jennings.

Wolitski and Sofikitis are confident that if a conference gives UAH a chance, the program will compete.

“This isn’t a sign of weakness,” Woltiski said. “We’ve got the funding model in place. We’ve got an agreement we’re working on with administration to make sure that we’re staying in the fight. This gives us an opportunity to reinvigorate the program and start on a clean slate.

“As far as our financial commitment, we’re in it for the long haul.”

“If anyone’s from college hockey is listening, give us a shot,” Sofikitis said. “We’re UAH 2.0. We’ve got a sustainable funding model. Everything we do in our lives, in our business lives and our personal lives, we win. And if you give us a shot, we’ll be a valued member and we will put a winning product on the ice. We don’t do anything any other way.”