Next step unclear as UAH makes hard decision to sit out

Perhaps in some alternate universe, UAH was accepted by the CCHA.

Not the new CCHA, the conference formed by most of the old WCHA and St. Thomas, but the original CCHA, which featured Michigan and Notre Dame and voted to deny UAH’s bid to join the league on August 11, 2009.

In this alternate timeline, the Chargers avoid playing as a Division I independent from 2010-13. UAH then joins the WCHA along with the other CCHA leftovers when the Big Ten and NCHC break off and form in 2013. Events play out as they do in this reality: Seven schools leave the WCHA to form the new CCHA, leaving UAH and the Alaska schools behind.

If UAH didn’t have to play as an independent then, would they be playing as an independent now? UAH has made it clear that it will not play as a Division I independent without a bid in tow.

The 2021-22 college hockey regular season gets under way this weekend with the Chargers sitting out after failing to secure conference membership, and the troubles that came with playing as an independent back then are a big reason why.

UAH’s previous experience as a Division I independent

UAH was a Division I independent from 1987-92, but the Chargers didn’t play a full Division I schedule. UAH played a handful of Division III and Canadian schools. There was a route to the NCAA tournament, however, with the independent teams playing their own tournament with an automatic bid on the line (UAH actually hosted this in 1991), so not being in a league was not as important as it is today.

The better comparison to today’s situation would be just over a decade ago, when the original CCHA’s decision not to accept UAH left the Chargers without a home after the 2009-10 season, the last for the men’s College Hockey America.

In the final season of the CHA, the Chargers had a 12-18-3 record, rolling with future NHL goaltender Cam Talbot and winning the final CHA tournament for their second NCAA Division I tournament berth. UAH fought hard against No. 1 Miami but lost 2-1.

There were already suggestions that the future of the program was in doubt, but UAH opted to continue the program as a Division I independent. It did not go well, as in the 2010-11 season, UAH won four games. In 2011-12, the Chargers won two.

It didn’t help that UAH played mostly on the road. In the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, the Chargers only played 20 of 63 (31 percent) games at the Von Braun Center. UAH’s home season was usually over by early January.

All that was before UAH had to be saved the first time in 2011, and the stigma of being a program on the ropes that came with it.

The 2012-13 season schedule was scrapped when the program was canceled in October 2011, and had to be built from scratch after it was saved in December. In 2012-13, UAH played only five home games (that weren’t exhibitions against club teams or the USA Under-18 team) with three against Division III opponents. The Chargers played 18 games on the road.

Even during the WCHA era, UAH had trouble bringing in non-conference opponents down to Huntsville. From 2013-20, the Chargers played only eight non-conference games (four series) at home. One of those series, against St. Cloud, was basically a favor to Huntsville native Nic Dowd, who was a senior with the Huskies at the time.

It’s extremely difficult for a program like UAH to overcome these obstacles and field a competitive Division I program as an independent. We know the funding is there, but it can be moot if you cannot build a fanbase with home games or tell recruits that they will have a championship to play for.

And this is why UAH chose to pause the program instead of going the independent route again.

Being an independent today

Would things be different for UAH as an independent now than from 10 years ago? Back then, UAH was the only Division I independent. Now there are five.

Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Fairbanks, the two others the schools in the new CCHA left behind, are attempting to continue their programs as independents. Anchorage plans to resume play in 2022-23 after saving its program from the cutting block. Fairbanks is playing this season.

Fairbanks can be commended for securing 14 home games as an independent this season, already more than UAH could manage in the early 2010s. Can the Nanooks keep that up? Having Anchorage back should help, but the Seawolves and Nanooks can only play each other so many times.

Both programs last played as independents almost 30 years ago, when the economics of college hockey were more conducive for it. It will be interesting to see if they will be able to build competitive programs with the same barriers UAH had to deal with a decade ago and the additional distance from their locations.

Long Island University, which started play last season, had a scheduling alliance with Atlantic Hockey last season but has not been able to become a permanent member. This season, the Sharks will play 11 out of their 36 games at Northwell Health Ice Center, the training facility for the New York Islanders, but only five of those games are against Division I opponents (the rest being Division II).

The one program that has seen some success as an independent as of late has been Arizona State, which is entering its seventh season of play. In 2019, the Sun Devils became the first independent to make the NCAA tournament since 1992, when Alaska Anchorage got an automatic bid through that Division I independents’ tournament.

ASU has stayed independent in part because its primary facility, Oceanside Ice Arena, which has a capacity of only 747. The Sun Devils also plan to open a 5,000-seat, on-campus arena by the end of next year, and it would not be surprising to see them in a conference soon. ASU is also a Power 5 school with an enrollment and an endowment 12 times that of UAH, so it’s an unfair comparison.

What options does UAH have?

UAH needs a conference affiliation to restart the program. What options are there?

UAH can hope Atlantic Hockey will re-open discussions on expansion. If successful in its fundraiser, a restarted Robert Morris program will apply to re-join Atlantic, and UAH could try again to become the 12th team.

The CCHA has maintained that it’s content to stay at eight teams. It’s unlikely they will listen to UAH’s proposals in the near future, but it would not hurt to try should the opportunity arise.

UAH officials and the alumni group have said they believe that further realignment is coming, which could open an opportunity for the Chargers to join a conference and resume play. It’s unknown when that realignment would take place, though, leaving options limited.

One thought is: What if the programs without a conference decide to form their own?

Not including Arizona State, which is its own level compared to other independent programs, there are four schools at this moment without a league: UAH, Alaska Anchorage, Alaska Fairbanks, and Long Island. There are two schools who are reportedly close to announcing new varsity hockey programs soon: Augustana (S.D.) and Lindenwood (Mo.). That’s six teams that could conceivably form a league. If Robert Morris saves its program but can’t get back into Atlantic, that’s seven.

Such an arrangement would be similar to the formation of the men’s College Hockey America in 1999, which brought in three Division I independents (Army, Air Force, Niagara), three programs moving up from Division II (UAH, Bemidji State, Findlay), and one new program (Wayne State).

The upside: It’s a league, at least. Guaranteed home games and a path to the NCAA tournament. The downside: Such a far-flung league would have serious travel costs. Like the original CHA, it would only take a couple of schools to find new conferences with better travel situations to bring it down.

Maybe that’s all this new league needs to be, though: a temporarily solution until Division I hockey figures out how to work for schools like UAH, whose only other option is to fold forever.

Or bring back the Division I independents tournament and give them an automatic bid to the NCAAs again (ha). That would solve the “something to play for” problem, at least.

This is all speculation, however. Maybe there are plans coming together that we’re not yet privy too. But whether the Chargers are playing this season or not, the future is cloudy.

Editorial: Delays in league search put UAH in a bind

Is this the end to UAH hockey, once and for all? Some may seem to think it is, but I’m not so sure.

There’s a lot of understandable anger out there because of the university’s decision to suspend the hockey program for the 2021-22 season while it continues trying to secure a conference home.

It would be easy to use this column to rant and rave, but I’m more sad than angry. And I don’t think this was some underhanded plot to kill the program for good.

The announcement to suspend was made with top alumni donors and advisory board members Sheldon Wolitski and Taso Sofikitis, who made it clear that this isn’t giving up. They are disappointed, sure, but I didn’t get the sense that they were angry at athletics director Cade Smith and president Darren Dawson, or that they were left out of the discussions leading up to this.

The situation is complicated, with many moving parts (and people).

UAH got caught in a time crunch when it came to finding that league home. A deadline of March 1 was set in which they were to make a decision on the next season, and it passed without a conference invite.

The CCHA had told UAH early that it wasn’t interested. That has left the currently only viable option, Atlantic Hockey.

They extended the deadline by two months, and still do not have an answer from Atlantic Hockey. Now it’s May, and the student-athletes need to know now whether to stay or go.

The way things are going, it will at least the middle of summer before we know for sure if UAH is joining Atlantic. You could wait until then to make a decision, but then you’re asking the players to take a risk that there will be a roster spot waiting for them elsewhere if the answer is no.

The NCAA transfer portal is a traffic jam right now. Teams are picking up transfers right now. UAH had two players coming before the decision. That’s why David Fessenden and Quinn Green were proactive in going into the portal.

That’s the bind UAH found itself in.

Meanwhile, Atlantic Hockey is not obliged to rush a decision for UAH’s sake. The powers that be in Atlantic understand how important their decision will be to the continued existence of the program. They have seen over the last year the support given to UAH to keep going. But they have to look out for the 11 teams that are in their league right now. Getting through this past season during the pandemic didn’t help.

UAH’s offer of $25,000 per series that Atlantic teams come to Huntsville is very generous. It shows that the university is serious.

However, the concerns that Cade Smith said have been brought up to him are valid. UAH is not in the geographical footprint of Atlantic Hockey (or any other conference), and the Northeast-based AHA already has an outlier in Colorado (Air Force).

There are also the concerns about UAH’s recent history. To be blunt, UAH blew it in the WCHA under former athletic director E.J. Brophy. The program was never promoted or given the proper resources needed to build a contender, and it showed.

These questions also have potential answers. With 12 (or more) teams, Atlantic Hockey can creatively schedule so that no one in the core Northeast has to visit Alabama and Colorado in the same season, or have divisions. And the last year has shown that there are better people running the show.

Was suspending the program for next season the correct decision? Could UAH have played as an independent this fall?

Playing as an independent next season only works if we know that UAH going into a conference, and we won’t know that for a while yet. And then, you’re asking the student-athletes to risk their playing status by waiting past the time when most teams have roster spots open.

Obviously, suspending the program has its own risks. If UAH does get in Atlantic, the roster would have to be rebuilt from scratch again, although this time there would be something to sell. And of course, the public backlash.

I feel for the current Chargers. While making this decision now maximizes the opportunities for the student-athletes to play next season, those who really want to stay will have to do so knowing they won’t be playing hockey (unless playing on the UAH club team is allowed).

But UAH has made its decision, and it wasn’t taken lightly. The ship that is UAH hockey is at the mercy of the college hockey winds right now. Let’s just hope it makes it to the other side intact.


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.”


Hoof beats: Chargers pick up two from portal

UAH has picked up two student-athletes through the NCAA transfer portal, but has lost its top goaltender from this season.

On Friday, defenseman Dominick Procopio announced his was joining the Chargers after three years at UMass Lowell. The Grosse Pointe, Mich. native played 41 games for the River Hawks, but only two this season, collecting an assist. Procopio played 31 games as a sophomore in 2019-20, garnering a +4 rating and seven blocked shots.

Before going to Lowell, Procopio played for the Shreveport Mudbugs of the NAHL, coached by now UAH associate head coach Karlis Zirnis.

On April 10, Ohio State forward Matthew Jennings announced he was transferring to UAH after three seasons. Jennings is a native of Buford, Ga., the same as graduating senior Connor Wood.

Jennings played in seven games this season with the Buckeyes before suffering a season-ending injury in January. He was co-winner of the team’s most improved player award in the 2019-20 season, scoring two goals and an assist in 29 games.

However, goaltender David Fessenden, established himself as the Chargers’ No. 1 netminder in his sophomore season, is transferring to New Hampshire. Fessenden posted a .910 save percentage and a 2.94 goals against average in his sophomore season at UAH.

The Grand Forks Herald reports that forward Quinn Green has also entered the transfer portal. Green was tied for third on the team in scoring as a freshman with six points on three goals and three assists.

The NCAA is now allowing first-time transfers to change schools without sitting a year. Along with allowing an extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic, the NCAA transfer portal has been busy in many sports, and hockey is no different.

Kestner shines in Finland: UAH alumnus Josh Kestner keeps striking gold in the pros with TPS in Turku, Finland.

Kestner scored the game-tying goal and assisted on the game-winner Monday in TPS’s 3-2 win over HIFK (Helsinki), which advanced TPS to Finland’s Liiga semifinals.

In nine playoff games this season, Kestner has eight points on five goals and three assists.

Kestner won Liiga’s “Golden Helmet” award last month for his regular-season play. Each team has one player wear a gold helmet in each game where he is the team’s leading scorer, and Kestner won the league award for wearing gold the most: 56 games. He was first in Liiga in game-winning goals (9), second in power-play goals (12), third in goals (24), and third in points (49).

Here is the game-winning goal that sent TPS to the semis:

Tennessee State considering hockey: The Nashville Post reported on April 26 that Tennessee State will soon announce conducting a feasibility study on starting an NCAA Division I men’s hockey program, according to sources.

TSU, which is in Nashville, would be the first HBCU (historically Black college and university) to create a Division I hockey program if the study proves that a hockey program would be viable. Sources say TSU would enter a partnership with the Nashville Predators.

The Tigers would easily be the closest Division I opponent for UAH and only the second program in the Southeast.


After a ‘foundation’ year, UAH eyes Atlantic for the future

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.