RIP Geof Morris

Geof Morris, one of UAH hockey’s staunchest and most colorful supporters and the creator of UAHHockey.com, died Saturday at the age of 43.

Geof fell in love with UAH right when we stepped on campus in 1997. He earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace and aeronautical engineering from UAH in 2002. He also served the school for five years in the SGA as Executive Vice-President, Chief Justice, Chief of Staff and Engineering Legislator.

That love extended to the hockey program. Geof was the color commentator for UAH’s internet-only student radio during his senior year. He also filled in as play-by-play or color on Internet streams during the 2013-14 season.

In 2010, Geof created UAHHockey.com. At first, the site was an official arm of the Chargers, but over time it became an independent voice, and Geof was not afraid to be critical of the program or the university if he felt it was necessary. He wanted the Chargers to be a program he, the school, and the community could be proud of.

And when the Charger program was planned to be cut in 2011, Geof was a big part in getting it saved.

Geof couldn’t devote the time to this site or the program in recent years, partly because his day job (which oftentimes was never day) involved communicating with the astronauts on the International Space Station as Payload Operations Director at NASA. When he did post, he wrote with a certain style that wasn’t your typical game recap.

Oh, and he never missed a chance to poke Bemidji State.

Geof still maintained the systems behind the site, allowing me to continue writing about UAH hockey. I’ll always appreciate the opportunity he gave me to keep ties with the program we love so much, even from almost 600 miles away from Huntsville, and even as times have been so rough. And it was always cathartic to vent about these tough times in our back channels.

Hopefully one day UAH hockey will be back. And when it happens, we should do everything we can to make it the program you wanted to see in life.

Here’s to you, Geof. Thank you. Rest in peace. Ad astra. Go Chargers.

In lieu of a memorial service, please fill out this form: https://gfmorr.is

Geof F. Morris, 1978-2022

If not Atlantic, then who?

Last week, I suggested that Atlantic Hockey split into two conferences to provide homes to the new and independent programs in Division I and to get UAH back into the game.

I’m not the first to pose an idea like this. It was just the latest proposal accounting for the recent developments of new Division I programs at Lindenwood and Stonehill and the expected addition of Utica.

Ed Trefzger, a writer and podcaster for USCHO and the voice of RIT, asked why whenever new programs show up that people expect Atlantic Hockey to accommodate them.

It’s a very valid question, and one I asked myself when I wrote last week’s column. So, I thought I would try to answer it.

It probably isn’t fair for the burden to fall on Atlantic Hockey, but the problem involves a number of these programs being in the east and how college hockey has elected to structure itself over the past decade.

First, let’s clarify that Atlantic Hockey isn’t the only conference expected to do anything to help the independent programs. With Augustana and Lindenwood in the West, the CCHA is being looked at as the likely conference to bring one or both on — not the NCHC or Big Ten.

It’s the same situation in the East, where Long Island, Stonehill, and Utica will need conferences. No one is looking at any of these schools and immediately saying “that’s a Hockey East school” or “that’s an ECAC school.”

Power conferences want power schools, and until more power schools join Division I hockey, the power conferences won’t do anything, and they won’t be expected to.

Let’s see what the six current conferences could do in this round of realignment.

Big Ten

The Big Ten is currently the smallest conference with seven teams (six regular Big Ten members plus Notre Dame as a hockey-only affiliate). Obviously, any new hockey programs in the Big Ten would go here, with Illinois likely being the eighth if and when it decides to start up.

The Big Ten could consider others to be hockey-only members like Notre Dame. Arizona State, which played nothing but road games against Big Ten teams in the 2020-21 season, might fit the bill as it’s the only Power 5 school looking for a conference. ASU is also finally building its new arena.

NCHC

The most powerful conference in the West has been eight teams since it began play in 2013. The NCHC has not announced any plans for expansion, or be any hurry to whatsoever, so the following is just idle theory.

If the NCHC did decide to expand, there are not many schools within or near its footprint that could match the high-end attributes the league would be looking for. With its aforementioned new arena and Power 5 status, Arizona State could be attractive.

Otherwise, the NCHC could look at current CCHA teams. Minnesota State was denied entry in 2016 but could get another look as it has maintained being a national power under coach Mike Hastings. Or perhaps Bowling Green, one of only two full Division I schools in the CCHA that would unite with fellow MAC members Miami and Western Michigan.

CCHA

The CCHA just finished its first season with eight teams, seven from the old WCHA and St. Thomas. Last year, the CCHA seemed content with its size and told UAH it was not interested. Since then, two new Division I programs have emerged relatively nearby: Augustana and Lindenwood.

Augustana would be the most likely addition, as Sioux Falls, S.D. is just over 150 miles away from Minnesota State (Mankato) and is building an arena. The Vikings plan to begin play in 2023.

Lindenwood formally announced it’s men’s hockey program going Division I last month, starting play this fall. Its St. Charles, Mo., location makes it a geographical fit.

There’s also the chance it considers UAH again, but based on recent history, that seems like a longshot.

Hockey East

The East’s most powerful league has 11 members, so it has room for an even 12th. But like the NCHC, it would want a program with particular qualities. The last time the men’s league expanded was 2014 with the addition of UConn from Atlantic Hockey, which put Hockey East at 12 teams until Notre Dame left for the Big Ten in 2017.

Perhaps if a new men’s program from a Power 5 school in the east emerges (like a Syracuse, for example), maybe Hockey East will make a move, but there’s nothing to suggest it will happen anytime soon.

ECAC

The ECAC is Division I hockey’s largest conference by membership with 12 teams, so whether there’s room for growth is a matter of opinion. It last expanded in 2005 with the addition of Quinnipiac from Atlantic Hockey.

The problem here, too, is that even if the ECAC was open to expansion beyond 12, it’s doubtful that it would consider the three new, would-be, and independent programs in the Northeast (Long Island, Stonehill, and Utica).

Could the Ivy League make an official split from the ECAC, which could allow the ECAC room to take programs like a Sacred Heart from Atlantic Hockey, perhaps making Atlantic more flexible in taking the new programs? They could, but it’s unlikely the Ivies would get any benefit from it.

So that leaves…

Atlantic Hockey

Atlantic Hockey is will be back at 11 teams by 2023 with the official reinstatement of Robert Morris. They could take Long Island, which has been trying to get in since they started. They could take Stonehill, which just announced it was moving up to Division I. They could take Lindenwood, who’s women’s team is in College Hockey America, which shares three teams and administration. When it becomes official, they could take Utica, which led Division III in attendance.

They could also take UAH. They could also do nothing. You know what I think they should do.

Anyone else?

I haven’t even mentioned Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Fairbanks. Before the realignment of 2013, Anchorage was in the old WCHA and Fairbanks was in the old CCHA. Now there is no WCHA and the new CCHA was formed in part to get away from Alaska in the first place, so there’s no reason to think any of the current conferences will consider them.

They’re stuck until more programs start up west of the Rockies. Washington? Oregon? Simon Fraser? These plus the Alaskas and Arizona State could put something together. That would be ideal.

In the end, no conference has to do anything regarding new members. The reason many think Atlantic Hockey (and the CCHA) could — and should — do something to help new and independent programs is because we know the others won’t. It’s why UAH identified Atlantic and CCHA to be the only two possibilities in it’s attempts to join a conference.

Is it fair? No, but what else is there? It may not have always been this way, but men’s hockey has elected to structure itself like every major sport in Division I, where resources and pedigree mean just as much if not more than your geographical location. If you haven’t garnered the resources and pedigree, the options of where you can be accepted are limited. The days where a Ferris State can be in the same league as Michigan are gone.

So, Atlantic Hockey and CCHA, what will you do?

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Atlantic split necessary for UAH, new programs

A whole college hockey season has happened since our last post, mainly because nothing has happened since last summer in regards to the UAH hockey program. It remains suspended without a conference affiliation. The situations at Atlantic Hockey and CCHA haven’t changed.

Things may be coming to a head, however. More realignment could be on the horizon, and UAH will need to pay attention if it wants to get back into the game.

The focus right now appears to be on Atlantic Hockey, which closed a door on UAH last June when it voted not to expand. Back then, UAH, Long Island, and an unnamed third school had expressed interest in joining that league.

That third school may have been Utica University. Utica currently plays hockey at the Division III level, but the whole athletic department is planning a move up to Division II (which will be voted on by the Division II body at the NCAA convention next February). The Pioneers, which have led all of Division III in attendance with over 3,000 per game this last two seasons, would have to make a decision for hockey: Play at the Division II level, which has only six other schools, or play up to Division I, which they can do because there is no Division II championship.

If Utica plays up, Atlantic Hockey would be their target. According to Atlantic Hockey commissioner Bob Degregorio, the league and Utica have been talking informally for several months. The conference had this season’s tournament at the Utica Memorial Auditorium last month.

It may be a while before Utica’s move is official, but one school announced a change last week. Stonehill College, one of those few remaining hockey programs playing at the Division II level, is moving its entire athletic program to Division I and joining the Northeast Conference as its primary league. Hockey will play as an independent starting this fall.

And then there’s Long Island University in Brooklyn, which just completed its second season in men’s hockey. The Sharks had a scheduling agreement with Atlantic Hockey during the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season.

Atlantic Hockey’s athletic directors voted last week to reinstate Robert Morris University when the Colonials return to the ice in 2023. The presidents of the league are expected to make it official in the summer, which would put the conference back at 11 teams.

If Atlantic wanted to bring in Stonehill, Long Island, and Utica, it would have 14.

These potential and newly-announced Division I programs are fits for Atlantic Hockey from geographical and financial perspectives, but the conference may be hesitant to take them all. Aside from the lack of uniform scheduling that would come with a conference that big, that’s a lot of competition for the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, which is usually its only bid to the NCAA tournament.

It would be best from a competitive standpoint if Atlantic Hockey split into two leagues. In fact, Atlantic Hockey splitting may be the only way these new programs can get into a conference at all. According to sources telling Mike McMahon in College Hockey Insider, Atlantic is very split on Utica joining.

What would the two conferences look like? Let’s start by geographically splitting the current Atlantic Hockey into west and east, separated by the Catskills, and then putting Air Force along with Army because apparently the service academies are joined at the hip. Since this new league primarily includes schools in New York and Pennsylvania, I’ll call it Mid-Atlantic College Hockey (MACH) and let someone else come up with a better name.*

Then, to the original AHA, add Long Island and Stonehill. In the MACH, add Utica and a certain school in Alabama.

Next, consider Lindenwood University, which announced in March that it’s men’s team is going varsity and Division I this fall. Lindenwood’s women’s team is in College Hockey America, which has Mercyhurst, RIT, and Robert Morris, so the men’s program can join those same schools in the MACH.

The result: Two conferences of eight. Four new programs have homes, and we get our hockey team back.

MACHAHA
CanisiusAIC
MercyhurstAir Force
NiagaraArmy
RITBentley
Robert MorrisHoly Cross
UAH*Sacred Heart
Lindenwood*Long Island*
Utica*Stonehill*
* Added teams.

A couple of things could trip this up. Utica could somehow not be approved to move to Division II, meaning its hockey program would have to stay at Division III. It’s possible Lindenwood could join the CCHA, making that conference 10 members if it brings in it and Augustana, whose program is planning a Division I start in fall of 2023. (It’s theoretically possible that the CCHA looks at UAH as that tenth team, which would be great, but I’m pessimistic about that.)

As for timing, it would be fabulous if the split was announced this summer, allowing for this dream timeline:

  • Summer 2022: The announcement of the new league featuring Canisius, Lindenwood, Mercyhurst, Niagara, RIT, and Robert Morris, with the aim of adding two more, to begin play in the 2024-25 season. Two years was the same amount of time the seven teams who broke away from the WCHA took to start up the new CCHA.
  • Late summer 2022: UAH soon applies to join the new league and is accepted. UAH immediately announces it will bring back the hockey program, playing an independent schedule in 2023-24 to get back into the swing of things and then MACH play in 2024-25.
  • 2022-23 season: Lindenwood and Stonehill begin Division I play as independents, with Long Island starting its third season as an independent.
  • February 2023: Utica is officially approved to join Division II at the NCAA Convention. Utica soon announces its men’s hockey program will play at Division I as an independent in the 2023-24 season. Utica then applies to join the new league and is approved to play starting in 2024-25.
  • By summer 2023: Long Island and Stonehill are accepted to join Atlantic Hockey beginning in the 2024-25 season.
  • 2023-24 season: Robert Morris plays in Atlantic Hockey one last time (or because they’re leaving for the MACH anyway, RMU plays as an independent to get ready, just like UAH). Utica is now a Division I independent. UAH, Lindenwood, RMU, and Utica could even schedule each other in sort of a MACH preview.
  • 2024-25 season: Let’s play MACH hockey.

Somebody with the power please make this happen.

I hope that if any split takes place, it’s done transparently and amicably among all members of Atlantic Hockey and its staff. The idea is not to tear down Atlantic Hockey but giving new programs into Division I but giving them a fair chance to succeed, while opening up an extra slice of the NCAA tournament pie for these teams to shoot for.

Realignment has been speculated for a while, but it really is a necessity at this point. Unless you’re a school from a Power 5 conference like Arizona State, being an independent is a serious disadvantage, with added difficulty of securing home games and not having a championship and NCAA automatic bid to play for. While it’s great that these new programs are starting, if they do not find conferences to play in, they will likely be non-factors competitively.

I suspect more programs would start up if they knew they had a conference home to go to. UAH being in a conference with openings would make that feasibility study at Tennessee State look better, for example.

If you’re a UAH supporter, it’s understandable if you’re skeptical about the university even trying to find a conference and resurrect the program after all that’s happened. The upside is that there hasn’t been any indication that the advisory board has given up, which I think is important in making sure that UAH, as stated in the press release announcing the suspension of the program, continues “to advocate for conference membership” and “to promptly reinstate its hockey program” once membership is secured.

A lack of opportunities is what put things to a halt over the last year. There’s no guarantee an opportunity will appear this offseason, but if college hockey is going to grow like this, realignment isn’t just expected, it’s necessary. UAH must be ready to make that call.

* The inclination I've seen for this hypothetical conference is to call it "College Hockey America." That could happen, but I'd want a new league to have a fresh start (much like UAH itself) and not tie itself to a league that, on the men's side, never was stable enough or lasted long enough to develop a history or tradition to attach your identity (unlike what the new CCHA did). "MACH" would be interesting though. I'd think aerospace-centered UAH would love to be in a league whose tagline is "Hockey at MACH speed" and could colloquially be called "The MACH 8."

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.

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Atlantic Hockey votes no on expansion

UAH will not be joining Atlantic Hockey, either.

Atlantic Hockey has notified UAH that its members have unanimously voted against conference expansion, denying the Chargers’ chance at membership. No date was set for the discussion of potential future expansion.

UAH athletics director Dr. Cade Smith said next steps have not yet been decided. Taso Sofikitis of the UAH hockey advisory board said more information will be available at the appropriate time as they work with UAH and the University of Alabama System.

If Atlantic Hockey had chosen to expand, it would have looked at UAH, Long Island University and a third unnamed school that also expressed interest, according to AHA commissioner Robert DeGregorio Jr. back in March. LIU’s men’s program began play this past season with a scheduling alliance with the AHA because of the pandemic but was not made a full member.

UAH suspended operations for the hockey program in May while it continued to pursue Atlantic Hockey, which currently stands at 10 schools. UAH officials and the alumni group spearheading efforts to keep the program going have said that conference affiliation is vital.

The other conference that UAH had targeted was the rebooted CCHA, which rejected UAH’s proposal in March. The CCHA begins play this fall with seven teams that broke away from the WCHA, leaving UAH, Alaska Anchorage, and Alaska Fairbanks. The WCHA officially dissolved on July 1.