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Season delayed as Chargers prepare and look for a league

The restart of Charger hockey is officially on hold because of COVID-19.

In a joint statement on Thursday, all Division I conferences announced that there will be a delay to the 2020-21 college hockey season due to the pandemic. Each conference will announce its own plans for the season, with the WCHA unveiling its revised schedule later in the fall.

“With 10 teams in five states, WCHA member institutions are currently operating under multiple state, local, university system, institutional and NCAA COVID-19 mandates,” the WCHA said in its statement. “Delaying the start of the season will provide league and member administrators the opportunity to continue detailed discussions regarding the implementation of a return to play plan that addresses the diverse guidelines all WCHA institutions must adhere to and recognizes the rapidly-evolving medical and safety environments that exist today.”

“It would be tough for us to play before January,” UAH athletic director Cade Smith said. “We’ll go with whatever the WCHA decides.”

Smith said teams traveling in buses and airplanes and going into locker rooms spreading the virus is the big concern.

Most fall sports at UAH and its primary league, the Gulf South Conference, have been cancelled. Charger basketball will not start before January.

The Huntsville Havoc, which shares the Von Braun Center with the Chargers, won’t begin their SPHL season until December. Venue limitations and capacity at the VBC will need to be worked out, Smith said.

“The University of Alabama system requires all athletes be tested every week, which is stricter than the NCAA guidelines,” Smith said. “How do we trace positives, how do we quarantine — these have taken much of administrative bandwidth.”

Smith said out of 150-160 tests this week, there were only eight positives. He feels that the protocols are working, and UAH head coach Lance West says his players are doing what needs to be done.

“The guys have been good at handling and protecting themselves and others,” West said. “They are preparing themselves as well as they can for when they can go.

“It’s been the hardest on the freshmen,” West said. “Their social interactions are limited and they are away from home. The veterans have been good at keeping them focused on what they can do as opposed to what they expected to do when they got to college.

“If you want to play, there are certain things they have to give up and choices they have to make.”

The Chargers are expected to have 13 freshmen this season, according to our commitment list, as West and his staff worked to build back the roster following the cancellation and restoration of the program. UAH is expected to announce the full roster soon once everyone has been cleared.

“That’s just the situation we were dealt,” West said. “We accepted the challenge together and found a way to get it done. You’ll see a team of hungry guys with something to prove.

“Everyone has a piece of where we’re headed. We will empower the guys that will set the tone for the future of the program. When we hit the ice, we will have the old-school, simple mentality of getting better every day.”

Meanwhile, the search for a conference home for the 2021-22 season continues. The primary target is now the Atlantic Hockey Association.

“I had a good call with the commissioner of the AHA (Robert DeGregorio, Jr.) about a month ago,” Smith said. “He laid out everything. I sent him a letter of interest, trying to gain an audience with their league about the application process.”

Atlantic Hockey currently has 11 teams, meaning UAH could become the 12th.

Smith says we could know by the time the Chargers play their first game this season, whenever that is, whether UAH has landed a spot in the conference.

The other option, the Central Collegiate Athletic Association, is now a long-shot at best. The CCHA announced the addition of the St. Paul-based University of St. Thomas as its eighth team on July 29, and it appears the new conference, comprising of seven WCHA programs, will be satisfied with eight entering its first season in 2021-22.

Hoof Beats: UAH announced the addition of former Charger goaltender Carmine Guerriero to the staff last Friday.

Guerriero played in 77 games for the Chargers from 2013-17. His .910 career save percentage was second best in UAH’s modern Division I era and fourth best all-time. His 3.19 career goals against average was fifth best in the D-I era and ninth all-time.

Last season, Guerriero was a volunteer goaltending coach at St. Lawrence.

Another former UAH netminder, Scott Munroe, has been named a player development coach at Total Package Hockey of Phoenix. Munroe, who played at UAH from 2002-2006, is the schools all-time leader in save percentage (.918) and helped the Chargers win the College Hockey America regular-season title in 2003.

Around the WCHA: Alaska Anchorage was given a chance to save its program after the Board of Regents voted Thursday to cut it following this season. The Seawolves must raise $3 million — two years of operating expenses — by February for the Board to consider reinstating the team. … The Alaska Nanooks team was quarantined as of August 30 after a player tested positive for COVID-19 following an on-campus gathering.

Zirnis named associate head coach

Another Charger alumnus is coming home.

Speculated but now official, Karlis Zirnis was named the associate head coach on Tuesday, joining Lance West’s staff looking to rebuild the UAH program.

Zirnis played for the Chargers from 1999-2003, helping them win two College Hockey America regular-season titles. His 119 career points is 14th in UAH’s varsity history and second in the school’s modern Division I era. He also ranks third in goals (46) and second in assists (73) in UAH’s modern D-I era.

Zirnis most recently was assistant coach at Alaska from 2018 to this past season. He joined the Nanooks right after West left after 10 years in Fairbanks as an assistant and interim head coach.

Before Alaska, Zirnis was the first head coach for the Shreveport Mudbugs of the North American Hockey League. His team won the 2018 Robertson Cup as NAHL Champions and he was named 2017-18 NAHL South Coach of the Year.

Zirnis is a native of Riga, Latvia. He was on the coaching staff for the Latvian team at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, as well as the 2014 and 2015 World Championships.

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West officially takes over as head coach

It didn’t take too long for the “acting” tag to be removed, as Lance West was named UAH’s head hockey coach on Wednesday.

After over 20 years in the business, West finally is a permanent Division I head coach.

“I have spent 18 years either playing or coaching with the program, and I am very aware of and share the passion of our alumni and fan base for UAH hockey,” West said in UAH’s press release. “The challenges that lie ahead are tough, but I am excited to work together with the young men, staff and The University that have committed to making this a successful program.”

West, who was an assistant for the Chargers the last two seasons, was named the acting head coach on June 3 after the resignation of Mike Corbett.

Since then, West has been rebuilding the roster, which has seen significant turnover since the May 22 announcement that the program was cancelled. Several players have transferred even after the program was reinstated on May 29.

One of the biggest transfers was revealed Wednesday. Michigan Tech announced that Mark Sinclair, UAH’s top goaltender the last two seasons, will play his senior season with the Huskies.

Sinclair is the ninth player to transfer from UAH, including six of the seven top point-scorers from last season. Including five graduating players, UAH has lost 14 players.

West has been busy finding players. So far, 12 have committed to play for the Chargers this fall (pandemic permitting). Only one, Ayodele Adeniye, was on this spring’s original recruiting class before the program was cancelled and reinstated.

West served as an assistant coach for UAH for seven seasons under Doug Ross from 2000-07. The Chargers won two College Hockey America regular season championships (2001 and 2003) and one tournament championship (2007) during that time.

Then West moved to Fairbanks, becoming an assistant with the Alaska Nanooks for nine years. He was the interim head coach in 2017-18, recruiting many of the players who helped the Nanooks earn a winning record last season.

West was a Charger winger from 1991-95. He scored 45 goals and 68 assists for 113 points, tying him for 15th in UAH varsity history.

West becomes the Chargers’ sixth varsity head hockey coach, and the first UAH alum to be head hockey coach.

Recent commitments:

Jonah Alexander, a forward from Toronto, was a first-team OJHL all-star after a 78-point season with the St. Michael’s Buzzers.

Josh Corrow is a defenseman from New Port Richey, Fla. He was most recently the alternate captain for the Whitecourt Wolves of the AJHL, notching 15 assists in 57 regular-season games.

Noah Finstrom, a forward from New Baltimore, Mich., spent the last two seasons with Jamestown of the NHL. He had 42 points in 54 games with the Rebels last season.

Quinn Green from West Chicago comes to Huntsville after back-to-back 39-point seasons with Topeka of the NAHL.

Michael Heneghan, a defenseman, had 37 points in 48 games with the Northeast Generals (NAHL) last season. Neutral Zone had him ranked 30th among uncommitted players born in 1999 and 174th in North America.

Derek Krall is a goaltender from Crofton, B.C. He had a .917 save percentage and 2.62 goals against average in 30 regular-season games with the Powell River Kings of the BCHL.

Nick Michel of Waconia, Minn. had seven goals in 32 games with Janesville of the NAHL last season.

Bennett Stockdale, a right wing from Ottawa, switched his commitment from Division III Geneseo to UAH. The alternate captain for Johnstown (NAHL) had 42 points in 50 games last season.

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Editorial: No matter the goal, every season ticket sold helps

Like that Bernie Sanders meme, we are once again asking for your support.

It’s been about seven weeks since the UAH hockey program was allowed to continue thanks to a crazy week where over $750,000 was raised.

That was to keep the program afloat. Now the Save UAH Hockey group is helping UAH lay the foundation to develop a powerful Division I program and never again have to rally support just to keep it alive.

Buy or donate 2020-21 UAH hockey season tickets

The foundation includes a strong season ticket base, which will help convince the CCHA or Atlantic Hockey to take a chance on the Chargers because they are in it for the long haul.

Hence the season ticket drive, which started on July 7 and expected to go through July 20.

So far, over 300 season tickets have been bought and/or donated, which is already an increase from recent years but well short of the ambitious goal of 3,000 the Save UAH Hockey group has envisioned.

It’s understandable. It’s much easier to get thousands to simply pitch in $10 or so to immediately save the program than it is to get thousands to pay $162 or more and commit eight weekends heading down to the VBC.

It doesn’t help that the 2020-21 season is by no means guaranteed to happen because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The thing is, UAH need those season ticket sales now. While not hitting the 3,000-ticket goal won’t kill UAH’s chances of getting in a conference, the more sold the better.

And the sooner the better. UAH plans on discussing membership with the CCHA and Atlantic Hockey later this summer and, as they say in golf, post a number they cannot ignore.

Conferences begin preparing their schedules several months in advance, taking into account arena availability and existing non-conference commitments. You can bet 2020-21 schedules are already in the molding process.

If UAH wants to avoid being an independent, it needs to do this now. And this drive is to let those leagues know that the Chargers are in it for the long haul and can be a valuable asset.

Times are tough, but if you really want to help Charger hockey reach the next level and have the means, please consider getting season tickets, or donating season tickets if you know you won’t be able to go to the games should they happen.

If the pandemic cancels this season, the tickets will go to 2021-22. You will get hockey regardless.

Whenever you do come back to Charger hockey, the experience will be different. UAH and the advisory board are planning to make the experience at the VBC a lot more energetic and exciting, a lot closer to what you expect at a Huntsville Havoc game.

Plus, you can bet Lance West’s roster is going to be hungry. Expect an effort to be proud of every night.

More season tickets sold means more consistently larger crowds, which contributes to the experience further. There’s nothing like a big, boisterous college hockey crowd.

And the more season tickets are sold, the more of a cut UAH gets thanks to a renegotiated deal with the VBC. That’s more funds to put into a competitive program with designs on championships.

And then UAH can truly again be the “Hockey Capital of the South.”

There’s some excitement brewing with this newly restructured program. UAH hockey can be something truly special. This is another chance to be a part of it.

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Season ticket sales drive under way

The next step in securing the long-term health of UAH hockey is building the season ticket base. A two-week season-ticket sales drive began Tuesday and will go through July 20.

For the first time, UAH hockey season tickets can be purchased online.

Reserved lower bowl season tickets will cost $242 and general admission upper bowl season tickets will cost $162 for 16 home games. This will include 14 WCHA games plus a non-conference series against Omaha to open the home season on Oct. 16-17.

Current ticket holders will get priority, and then new season ticket holders will get a chance to pick seats.

Buyers will have the option to donate their season tickets. They would be put in a pool that would distribute to local non-profits, veteran and military organizations, hospitals, and other service organizations supporting underprivileged families.

UAH students will still get into games for free.

If fans aren’t allowed in the VBC this season, or if the season is cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, season tickets purchased will be applied to the 2021-22 season.

The Save UAH Hockey Twitter and Facebook feeds will promote the season-ticket drive. For more information, email info@saveuahhockey.com or visit SaveUAHHockey.com.

Strong season ticket sales will show prospective conferences of UAH hockey’s commitment to long-term stability and growth. The Central Collegiate Hockey Association and Atlantic Hockey are possible landing spots for the Chargers.

Advisory committee announced: Save UAH Hockey revealed the members of the program’s new advisory committee on Monday, and it has a significant NHL presence.

The seven-member committee will guide and support the advisory board, led by prominent Charger alumni Sheldon Wolitski and Taso Sofikitis, who will work with UAH athletic director Cade Smith on growing the hockey program long term.

The committee members are:

  • Sean Henry – President & CEO, Nashville Predators
  • Bill Wickett – Executive Vice President, Tampa Bay Lightning
  • Brent Flahr – Vice President & Assistant General Manager, Philadelphia Flyers
  • Cam Talbot – Calgary Flames goaltender, UAH alumnus (2007-10)
  • Paul Gierow – UAH alumnus and business entrepreneur
  • Joe Ritch – UAH hockey program founder and business entrepreneur
  • Ralph Drensek – UAH hockey alumnus (1985-89) and engineer