Hoof Beats: Kestner, Knight playing well in Europe

While the pro seasons are gearing up late here in North America, some leagues in Europe are well under way, and a couple of Charger alumni are making their mark.

Josh Kestner is off to a hot start with TPS in Finland’s Liiga. Kestner had 11 goals and 19 points in 20 games. He’s tied for fifth in the league in both goals and points.

Defenseman Cam Knight is also playing well in Denmark. He has nine points in his last 10 games with Esjberg, and has 13 points total in 25 games played.

Domestically, the NHL is planning to start a 56-game regular season on January 13. The Minnesota Wild, Cam Talbot’s new team, opens the season at Los Angeles on January 14.

The ECHL has just started this season, although some teams have opted out. Among those affected by cancellation are Kurt Gosselin (Cincinnati), Tyler Poulsen (Worcester), and Matt Salhany (Adirondack).

Brennan Saulnier’s Rapid City Rush is playing, however, and the third-year pro has a goal in three games.

In the SPHL, Cody Dion signed with the Birmingham Bulls after his previous team, the Peoria Rivermen, opted out of the 2020-21 season. The SPHL season will start Saturday with five teams, including the Huntsville Havoc. Also, goaltender Jake Theut joined the Macon Mayhem after his ECHL team, the Norfolk Admirals, opted out.

Charger alumni in the pros

Ross, Sofikitis to join new UAH Hall of Fame: UAH announced its inaugural class of the UAH Athletics Hall of Fame on Monday. Two of the 10-member group represent the hockey program.

Doug Ross coached the Chargers from 1982-2007. His teams won the 1996 and 1998 NCAA Division II national championships, the 2001 and 2003 College Hockey America regular-season titles, and the 2007 CHA tournament, earning UAH’s first berth in the Division I tournament.

Ross coached the Chargers to 376 wins in the 22 seasons since UAH hockey became a varsity program in 1985.

Taso Sofikitis was a defenseman for the Chargers from 1992-96. He was a member of the 1996 NCAA Division II national champions and a CoSIDA first-team All-American in 1995-96.

Sofikits scored 17 goals and 56 assists over 103 career games played.

The induction ceremony is not yet scheduled.

Four games added to schedule: UAH has four non-conference games against WCHA opponents added to this season’s schedule.

The Chargers will go to Minnesota State on January 28-29. Michigan Tech comes to Huntsville the following weekend, February 5-6.

The additions fill the gaps created when Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Fairbanks opted out of playing the 2020-21 season.

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UAH, alumni pledge $17M, long-term plan for hockey

The University of Alabama in Huntsville re-affirmed its long-term commitment to its Division I hockey program on Wednesday, collaborating with alumni on a massive pledge while setting goals for conference membership and an on-campus facility.

“This is not a band-aid. This is here long term,” UAH alumnus Taso Sofikitis said in a press conference Wednesday afternoon.

“The UAH hockey program has a long and cherished history,” UAH president Darren Dawson said in the school’s press release. “We are truly grateful for the vital support from our alumni and community as we work together to ensure that the legacy of UAH hockey continues.”

The university, in a partnership with an alumni group headed by Sofikitis and Sheldon Wolitski, are pledging $17 million over 10 years to turn the program into a sustainable model that will compete for championships.

Assisting the alumni group is an advisory committee featuring prominent members of the hockey community, including Nashville Predators president and chief executive officer Sean Henry, Tampa Bay Lightning executive vice president of communications Bill Wickett, and Minnesota Wild goaltender and UAH alumnus Cam Talbot.

“We’re the faces, but there’s a big tribe behind us,” said Wolitski, who along with Sofikitis were defensemen for the Chargers from 1992-96. “My vision expands over the next 10-20 years for not only just Huntsville hockey but hockey in general. My goal is to continue to grow it, because I know it’s going to make a big impact on kids, youth hockey and college hockey, like it’s made for me.”

“That’s the first step: The long-term financial stability,” UAH head coach Lance West said during the WCHA’s preseason teleconference. “There’s been a lot of older guys that have fought for years and now some of the younger guys are stepping up because they can financially. It’s been a very impressive thing to see everybody come together. It’s extremely exciting.”

UAH is about to begin its final season as a member of the WCHA, which will dissolve after this season as seven members are leaving for form the new CCHA, leaving UAH, Alaska Anchorage, and Alaska Fairbanks.

Nevertheless, Smith says he has gotten advice and support from schools such as Minnesota State and Bowling Green, who have been perennial contenders in the WCHA.

“Part of the reason why we’re in this situation is our own fault from the WCHA, and to their credit, some of those people in that league have had really open conversations with me about how things should’ve been done and what needs to be done in the future,” Smith said.

UAH has had conversations with the CCHA and Atlantic Hockey about potentially joining. Atlantic is currently the most likely candidate, and Smith said he has been talking with administrators from across college hockey about what it would take to land a spot. The timeline is secure membership sometime this season.

“We think that this news helps us in that step,” Smith said.

“We have to have a home,” Sofikits said. “We have to have a conference. We’re looking at college hockey. They can see we are committed. Whatever I touch and Sheldon touches, we have to make it a success. Failure is not an option. So we need to show we can be a very valued partner to a conference.”

The new on-campus arena is part of UAH’s master plan, which involves developing a mixed-use area in the 58-acre Executive Plaza along University Drive just west of the campus.

The facility, which would also be a new home for UAH basketball and volleyball, would be subject to approval from The University of Alabama System board of trustees based on “achieving fundraising goals, developing a sustainable business plan, and aligning with UAH’s budget parameters.” UAH announced the proposal in April of 2019 and added to the master plan later that summer.

In the meantime, the Von Braun Center has been helpful by renegotiating their revenue sharing to help UAH. The Huntsville Havoc, which shares the VBC with the Chargers, have also been helpful in game operations and scheduling.

Beyond that, UAH must work on building a program that sustains itself without putting too much of a burden on donors. That will require increasing attendance and corporate sponsorships, and overcoming any perception that nothing has changed from when the hockey program was saved eight years ago.

“There are things already in place that we think are going to generate a lot more revenue,” Smith said. “Any revenue generated from ticket sales, merchandise, or corporate sponsorships, that takes the place of what has been private donations. We don’t want (our donors) to have to foot the bill. That’s not fair. We want this to be a true partnership and working together to where this is something that generates revenue for itself.”

“I’ve been asked, ‘How is it any different than the last time we raised money?’ We have to overcome that,” Wolitski said. “We have a road map to success. It’s not a silver bullet, but there’s a number of things we need to do to prove to the hockey world that we are serious about hockey.”

“There are donors out there that haven’t donated because we haven’t had a strategic plan in place, and we do now. They need to have trust when they donate that it’s going to a good cause, and that’s my job.”

 “We’re gonna do whatever it takes to become relevant in college hockey,” Sofikitis said. “If it takes more money, we’re gonna get it done. That’s how passionate we are to take UAH to the next level.”

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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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

Press release: UAH Hockey program reinstated

The following is a press release from the alumni group that led the effort to save the UAH hockey program.

UAH Hockey Program Reinstated with Fundraising Efforts Led by UAH Hockey Alumni

Huntsville, Alabama – Alumni, UAH Hockey, and college hockey supporters locally and around the world successfully raised the funds needed to reinstate the University of Alabama in Huntsville NCAA Division I hockey program. A total of $870,022 was raised in four days – exceeding the goal by $120,000.

Sheldon Wolitski, Taso Sofikitis, and current NHL goaltender Cam Talbot (all UAH Hockey alumni and the program’s key boosters) want to thank UAH President Dr. Darren Dawson for the opportunity to keep the UAH Hockey program alive, and Ron Gray and the entire University of Alabama System Board of Trustees for their guidance and support throughout this process. Additionally, they look forward to working alongside UAH Athletic Director Dr. Cade Smith to build a consistent and competitive D-I hockey program that will bring national and international notoriety to the university.

“Securing the funding is the first step. We know there is more work ahead, and we are committed to creating a strategic plan to ensure the long-term success of the program,” says Wolitski. Wolitski and Sofikitis plan to look at the structure that was put into place between UAB and its alumni to save and transform the UAB football program as a point of reference.

Wolitski, Sofikitis, and other key advisors look forward to earning an opportunity to discuss UAH’s conference potential for the 2021-2022 season.

Funds were raised via a GoFundMe campaign and T-shirt campaign. As of 6:30 AM CT on May 30, the GoFundMe campaign raised $537,220 and $32,802 from the T-shirt campaign. UAH Hockey alumni donated an estimated $255,000 of that total.

Separate from the GoFundMe campaign, both Wolitski and Sofikitis contributed $125,000 each. Combined, UAH Hockey alumni contributed an estimated $505,000 to save the program. Sixty-five percent of UAH Hockey player alumni donated to the campaign as well as many former student-athletes’ parents, siblings, children, and family members. A special thank you to Derek Puppa, a UAH Hockey alumni, for his $20,000 donation and to an anonymous donor of $50,000 (separate from the GoFundMe campaign) in honor of Fred Hudson, a pioneer of youth hockey in Huntsville.

We would also like to thank Joe Ritch, the founder and first coach of the UAH Chargers Hockey team who built the very program that we fought for this week.

What started out as a grassroots effort to save our home team went beyond anything we could have imagined. The support we have received from the hockey community across the world has been nothing short of amazing. We did the unimaginable – TOGETHER AS A TEAM. And it’s as a team that we will move forward with the future of UAH Hockey.

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The group would also like to thank people with ties to the NHL for their support of the cause:

Donors
Cam Talbot
Dylan Strome
Mark Recchi
Chris Mason
Brian Burke

Social Media:
Patrick Kane
Brandon Carlo
Paul Bissonnette
John Buccigross
Ryan Kennedy

NHL Radio:
Scott Laughlin
Gord Stellick