Well, here we go again.
On a Friday afternoon news dump, seven WCHA schools — Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State, and Northern Michigan — announced their intentions to create a new men’s hockey conference, leaving UAH, Alaska, and Alaska Anchorage behind.
The new league would begin play in the 2021-22 season, meaning the current WCHA would still play together in 2019-20 and 2020-21.
As of Friday evening, there has been no comment from UAH reacting to the announcement. WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson said the league “will work to assure that any members that do withdraw do so in accordance with WCHA Bylaws.”
Even after the dust settled on the NCAA Division I realignment in 2013, when UAH joined the WCHA, rumblings persisted that conference shifting would happen again.
The primary reason for the change is in the second paragraph of the joint press release from the seven schools on Friday:
“They are like-minded in their goals and aspirations for the potential new league with a focus on improving regional alignment and the overall student-athlete experience while building natural rivalries within a more compact geographic footprint.”
In other words, they don’t want to fly to Alaska or Alabama all the time.
According to a source close to the UAH hockey program, former athletics director E.J. Brophy did not adequately support UAH as a member of the WCHA.
The source said trips to Huntsville are cheaper than to Minnesota or to and from Michigan for many of the seven teams that are leaving. Brophy’s administration also did not listen to staff warnings about the WCHA potentially breaking up and did nothing to prepare or manage UAH’s image as a league partner.
Brophy was reassigned earlier this month. Dr. Cade Smith has been named the interim athletics director, likely until Brophy’s contract expires next year.
The source indicated that UAH hockey should be OK in the short term, particularly if the program gets a WCHA payout once the seven schools leave. It will also help if the new permanent athletics director has hockey experience, which should be a priority.
The new A.D. will have to take the lead in finding a new conference home for UAH hockey. That hiring will fall on new president Dr. Darren Dawson, who took over from the retiring Dr. Robert Altenkirch this month.
The hockey program is in a more stable position than it was in its last conference search in 2012, after Altenkirch saved the program from cancellation after a grass-roots campaign. The WCHA unanimously accepted UAH on January 17, 2013 and started league play that fall.
UAH indicated a commitment to hockey in April by announcing plans to build a on-campus, multi-use facility that would be the new home for hockey, basketball, and volleyball.
The facility and the overall Executive Plaza mixed-use development, presented by Altenkirch to the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees in April, was added to the UAH master plan in June following committee approval.
That could help put UAH in position to promote itself to a league that could take them in, although the options are unclear at this early stage.
UAH could try to convince the seven schools who are planning to leave the WCHA that the Chargers would give their new league a nice even eight members. UAH could try to join another existing conference, but or a league that hasn’t been conceived yet. Anything would be pure speculation without a study of feasibility at this point.
At any rate, the future of Charger hockey is uncertain, but if UAH plays its cards right and gets the right people, the program can move forward and grow.