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.

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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.

Reaction to the cancellation of the UAH hockey program

Here is some reaction to the news that UAH is cancelling the varsity hockey program:

I have put 18 years of dedication into this sport through blood sweat and tears to play Division I hockey and that was ripped away from me. I no longer have a team to play for and am disappointed.

Ayodele Adeniye, incoming freshman

My initial reaction is to think about the kids. They made a commitment to the school, community and team and to have this decision slapped in their face doesn’t seem right. Plus to drag tennis into this is ridiculous.

What makes it worse for me is I coached several of the kids, from recent grads to commitments that are still a year or two away and guys in between. Naturally, the Preds and NHL are readily available for most to watch, at least on television, but UAH was the college team kids from Tennessee, Georgia and naturally Alabama could relate too, where they could really put their dream into a vision to drive them forward. This decision leaves a huge void for youth hockey in America now.

To the UAH hockey family, there have been a lot more sour days than great days recently, but anytime I was at the rink, regardless of the score, everyone always had a smile on their face. Our experiences together made my time as a player and fan so memorable and fortunately the trustees can’t take away.

I hope there is an opportunity to give the program a legitimate shot. Taso, Sheldon and others have been tremendous supporters of the team and more importantly the entire athletics department. For leadership to treat those pillars with very little regard makes writing this note a little easier.
Unfortunately, this horse has been shot at many times, hopefully these chargers are able to get out of the stable once again.

Cheers to Charger Hockey.

Steve Milosevski, forward (2000-04)

It’s hard to put into words how sad, angry, disgusted (and any other synonyms) I am with what has transpired with the University of Alabama-Huntsville president and athletic director in their move to disband the Chargers hockey program. It hurts because I was there at Day One, a summer afternoon in 1979 when it was announced UAH would have a club hockey program. It hurts because I played two years for the Chargers. It hurts because I know how much the community embraced the Chargers. It hurts because some young men – as recent as Thursday – were making plans to come to Huntsville to be UAH student athletes. It hurts because the 28 current players are having to find other schools if they want to continue playing collegiate hockey. And it hurts because the announcement came late Friday afternoon on a holiday weekend, aka “Friday news dump.” There was no press conference even though eliminating the sole NCAA Division I program at a NCAA Division II institution is pretty important news – especially because of how the Chargers hockey team is part of the fabric that is Huntsville. Hell, the announcement was on a news statement halfway down the home page of uah.edu with the headline: “COVID-19 forcing UAH to take steps for more budget reductions”. There was no meeting with alums or community leaders to discuss options and alternatives to cutting the program. The administration cold-blooded axed a 41-year-old program that has produced the school’s only NCAA national championships – yes, two national championships; a program that brought national acclaim to UAH; a program whose alumni have become presidents and CEOs of national and international businesses; a program that saw its alums raise some $225K annually – no other UAH team comes near that. And now it’s gone. I can state that I am proud to be a former Charger hockey player and I am proud to call my former teammates and other former Chargers my brothers. But I am not proud of UAH, and that really hurts.

Bud McLaughlin, goaltender (1980-82)

UAH hockey has always been my Alabama football or Auburn football. Growing up here in Huntsville I was certainly an anomaly in the ’90s by being able to play for UAH hockey. I have always taken pride in the program and done my best to support it. For the administration to completely dismiss it every year for so long is just ridiculous. No program in the country has fought as hard just to exist as UAH hockey. Yhere are so many quality individuals that have been a part of this program in varying capacities (players, staff, volunteers, etc). 

I have many questions, but the first is why didn’t the administrators reach out to the alumni and boosters prior to making this decision? Did they not learn anything from 2012? Do they think we didn’t deserve the chance to try and save the program?  Sure maybe it isn’t possible but let us try. Everyone I know equates UAH athletics with hockey. That has to mean something, or maybe not.

Matt Parker, forward (1994-98)

Sad and disappointed to hear of the University’s decision to cut the hockey program at UAH. They gave me the opportunity to continue my playing career after juniors and the platform to achieve my dream of playing in the NHL. I wish all the students athletes affected by this all the best and hope they can find a new home to continue to follow their dreams of playing hockey at the collegiate level.

Cam Talbot, goaltender (2007-10)

UAH needs to be prepare for the WCHA’s looming demise

College hockey realignment is happening again. Is UAH ready?

On Friday, seven WCHA schools announced they plan to break away and form a new league that would begin play in the 2021-22 season, leaving UAH, Alaska, and Alaska Anchorage. Barring getting a handful of new members, the conference’s days are effectively numbered.

The “Runaway Seven” are tired of having to travel to Alabama and/or Alaska (sometimes twice) every year, even though UAH, UAA, and UAF were providing them subsidies. They are also tired of UAH and the Alaska schools dragging the league down, wanting to play with members who display “a level of institutional investment that demonstrates significant commitment to their hockey programs and facilities.”

It was inevitable, when you think about it. The current WCHA was a forced marriage of leftovers from the WCHA and CCHA following the formation of the NCHC, and UAH. Bowling Green is the biggest of the lot, the only full Division I university. This setup was going to tax budgets and schools were going to be unhappy.

UAH interim athletics director Dr. Cade Smith, who took over for E.J. Brophy last month, released a statement on Monday, saying the news came without warning and that the university is “committed to hockey, and we want to do what it takes to give our program what it needs to be successful.”

I do not doubt Dr. Smith, but the administration must step it up to make UAH attractive to potential conference suitors.

Last year, I wrote about how the UAH hockey program had improved since joining the WCHA, but risked stagnation without a proper boost in support.

I listed a number of areas of focus, from increasing marketing and promotions (a notorious problem), raising the recruiting budget, growing booster club membership, increasing student involvement, and improving media production.

Since then, the Doug Ross Hockey Suite and a brand new weight room opened last fall thanks to the generosity of UAH hockey supporters.

However, those same issues are still prevalent, especially compared to the many peers in the WCHA. And, whatever you think of his coaching record, puts Mike Corbett at a disadvantage when it comes to recruiting and reduces UAH’s image in the eyes of the WCHA and the college hockey world.

Going forward, UAH has the potential to be in good shape with the proposed multi-use facility that would be Charger hockey’s new on-campus home. However, that’s still just an idea that certainly won’t be ready by 2021 and it’s unknown whether the looming breakup of the WCHA will affect the project.

For now, UAH must expect to go above and beyond what was necessary to get into the WCHA in 2013.

A critical factor: Who UAH hires as its next athletics director.

Brophy is no longer the AD, being reassigned within the university. Smith, who is also the Charger volleyball coach, is serving as AD on an interim basis. UAH probably won’t hire a permanent AD until Brophy’s contract expires next year.

UAH might consider posting the position right away.

Dr. Darren Dawson, who recently became UAH’s new president, will be making the hire. Dawson succeeded Dr. Robert Alterkirch, who made the decision to save the hockey program in 2013 and was the proponent of the proposed new arena.

Optimally, UAH needs someone with administrative experience in hockey, someone who knows the college hockey landscape and has trust within it, and someone who will find innovate ways to raise funds, increase student and community involvement.

The current and future leaders of UAH athletics must see the potential and act on it.

UAH hockey simply can’t be an independent program again. In this round of musical chairs, just getting by isn’t going to cut it.