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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."
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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.

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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.”

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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.

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Chargers’ season ends with playoff loss at Lake State

The Chargers’ WCHA era came to a end in frustrating fashion on Saturday, as UAH lost 4-1 at Lake Superior State.

The Lakers swept the WCHA quarterfinal series in two games, ending UAH’s season at 3-18-1.

LSSU (17-6-3) killed the Chargers on the power play, converting 3-of-8 opportunities. UAH committed a season-high nine penalties, and could have gotten more as the officials kept whistles mostly quiet in the first period.

BOX SCORE

David Fessenden came up big numerous times to keep the game scoreless through one period. He made 13 of his 31 saves in the frame, denying former Charger Jack Jeffers taking a centering pass in the slot, stopping Benito Posa from the same spot, and sliding from post to post to steal a backhander from Brandon Puricelli.

Fessenden needed to make those saves as the Lakers took the possession battle in the first, helped by winning 17 of 23 faceoffs.

Meanwhile, UAH got only five shots on Laker goalie Seth Eisele, who was making only his second start of the season instead of their No. 1, Mareks Mitens. Eisele finished with 16 saves in the game.

Dayne Finnson was given a highly questionable boarding penalty in the last minute of the first, and Lake Superior took advantage 18 seconds into the second. An unchecked Louis Boudon tipped in a centering pass from Jeffers.

Boudon later went flying on Connor Wood’s hip check, and had to crawl back to the Laker bench. Wood was likely fortunate to get only two minutes for the hit, but Lake Superior capitalized anyway as they were already on the power play.

Puricelli’s blast on Fessenden left a big rebound for Will Riedell, who scored on the ensuing open net to give LSSU a 2-0 lead at the 7:15 mark.

Three minutes later, the Lakers scored yet another power-play goal after a UAH too many men on the ice penalty. Hampus Eriksson’s deflection in the slot made it 3-0.

Puricelli scored with 6:40 to go for the Lakers’ fourth goal.

Mick Heneghan prevented the shutout with a power-play goal with 2:12 remaining in the game. His blast up the middle, his first college goal, was assisted by Brian Scoville and Connor Merkley.

UAH now enters an uncertain offseason as it looks for a new conference to call home. UAH is courting Atlantic Hockey and the CCHA, which will have seven members of the disbanding WCHA.