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UAH hockey to play this season after reaching fundraising goals

After a furious fundraising effort over four days, the University of Alabama in Huntsville varsity hockey program will, as we say, charge on.

Thanks to a GoFundMe fundraiser, T-shirt sales, and a massive publicity campaign, UAH alumni were able to raise the $500,000 by the 5 p.m. CT Friday deadline set by the university to keep UAH hockey alive for the 2020-21 season.

“The total amount of more than $750,000 in private dollars will allow the Chargers to continue to compete at the Division I level during the 2020-2021 season,” according to a UAH statement. “This total philanthropic contribution is the largest athletic campaign contribution in the history of UAH.”

Last Friday, UAH announced that it was cutting the hockey program due to financial concerns exasperated by the COVID-19 pandemic. On Monday, two of the program’s top alumni and benefactors, Sheldon Wolitski and Taso Sofikitis, spoke with UAH president Dr. Darren Dawson, athletics director Dr. Cade Smith, and faculty athletics representative Dr. Brent Wren.

The UAH officials told Wolitski and Sofikitis that $750,000 would need to be raised by the close of business Friday for the university to resume the program.

The cause was championed across several media outlets across the nation and across hockey. UAH alumnus and Calgary Flames goaltender Cam Talbot contributed to the effort, as well as Chicago’s Patrick Kane and Dylan Strome.

Wolitski and Sofikitis will each contribute $125,000 to complete the $750,000 goal.

Dawson has committed funds from the university to cover the balance of the hockey team’s operations during the upcoming season. “We are thankful and gratified from the loyal support that has been demonstrated this week by the fans and alumni of Charger hockey,” said Dawson in the statement.. “We are hopeful that this support will translate into a sustainable funding model that will allow the UAH hockey program to rise again to high levels of success.”

Now that the Chargers will play this season, the next step is stabilizing the program for the long term.

In a “state of the union” call Thursday with hockey alumni and boosters, Wolitski and Sofikitis outlined a goal to establish a $2 million yearly budget, with 25 percent coming from the university and 75 percent from outside sources.

An advisory council of alumni and local business owners would help the university manage the hockey program. They must collaborate on a 5- to 10-year plan philanthropic funding model, establish the structure of the program going forward and help secure a place in a conference, specifically the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA), which starts in the 20201-22 season.

The council would also utilize the alumni network to recruit corporate sponsorship, recruit fans, and support the student-athletes with opportunities after their hockey careers are complete.

“The university is fully committed to the upcoming season,” said Smith in the statement. “The university will work with the supporters of the UAH hockey program and a newly formed Hockey Advisory Board to develop a plan that will allow the Chargers to thrive in 2021-2022 season and beyond.”

“UAH is committed to building a world-class D-I hockey program with a permanent conference home that will allow the Chargers to continue past the 2020-2021 season.”

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UAH to eliminate hockey program

The University of Alabama in Huntsville announced Friday the elimination of the hockey program after 41 seasons of competition.

The university cited budget restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic as a main factor in the decision.

“COVID-19 pandemic has forced the university to make difficult personnel and programmatic decisions,” according to the release, co-signed by UAH president Darren Dawson and athletic director Cade Smith. “Eliminating the expense of the hockey and tennis programs is a necessary step to ensure that UAH can continue meeting its core educational mission.”

The announcement comes rather sudden after the official UAH hockey Twitter feed revealed a six-player freshman signing class last week.

Men’s and women’s tennis will also be eliminated. The student-athletes for the cut programs were notified via email from UAH athletic director Cade Smith and video conferences with coaches and staff.

The program finishes its 35-year varsity history with a record of 456-570-82. The Chargers became a varsity program after six years a club team starting in 1979, winning the 1982, 1983, and 1984 national club championships.

The Chargers won two NCAA Division II national championships in 1996 and 1998.

UAH went back up to Division I shortly there after, winning two College Hockey America regular-season championships in 2001 and 2003. The Chargers won CHA tournament titles in 2007 and 2010, earning berths in the NCAA tournament.

It’s not the first time the program has been cut. In 2011, UAH announced the program would be relegated to club status, but a movement to raise funds and find a spot in the new WCHA in 2013 saved it.

However, UAH would reach no higher than seventh place in the seven years in the WCHA, with only three playoff appearances. The last season of 2019-20 was one of the worst in the program’s history. The Chargers went 2-26-6, tying the program mark for fewest wins.

This comes almost a year since the announcement that seven programs were leaving the WCHA to form their own league, which is now known as the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. That left UAH’s future uncertain and looking for a new conference when the WCHA breaks up after this season.

“We are deeply saddened by today’s news that Alabama Huntsville has eliminated its men’s ice hockey program,” WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson said in a statement. “UAH has been a valued member of the WCHA since joining the league in 2013 and, as the first Division I hockey school in the Deep South, brought the sport to a previously untapped fan base for college hockey.”

UAH’s primary target was to join those seven CCHA teams, but now they won’t be around to apply.

UAH dropping hockey is the latest in a number of cancellations of athletic programs across the nation during the pandemic. Among those affected was fellow WCHA school Bowling Green, which dropped baseball, and Gulf South Conference affiliate school Florida Tech, which dropped football.

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UAH readying pitch for new league membership

Note: UAH interim athletic director Cade Smith was interviewed on March 11, before concerns about the COVID-19 coronavirus had shut down the college hockey season and essentially the whole sports world. On March 19, Smith revealed that he tested positive for the virus but is recovering.

The UAH hockey program heads into the offseason with about as much uncertainty as it has ever faced.

What likely will be the WCHA’s final season is next season, and UAH is again looking to join a conference in 2021.

The Chargers had a dreadful 2019-20 season with a record of 2-26-6, matching the school record for fewest wins.

“We’re disappointed in not being able to win more games,” UAH interim athletics director Dr. Cade Smith said. “And we’re disappointed in where we are as far as a league affiliation. We’ve got to figure some stuff out.”

That makes this offseason absolutely critical. UAH will likely not go the independent route again as it did from 2010-12, when finding home games was a struggle.

The primary target is CCHA 2.0. The seven schools that are leaving the WCHA to form a new conference in 2021 announced on February 18 that they are resurrecting the Central Collegiate Hockey Association name.

From a distance perspective, the CCHA makes the most sense for UAH. The trick will be getting the CCHA to agree to accept a school that it was leaving behind in the first place.

“First off, we have to get an audience with them to some degree,” Smith said. “We’ve been working with Collegiate Consulting, who is working with different teams in that league. The information I’m getting from our consultant is that probably nothing is happening as far as getting an audience until the commissioner is named for that new conference.”

Collegiate Consulting is an Atlanta-based company that has worked on a feasibility study to bring varsity hockey to the University of Illinois.

On February 25, the league announced it was starting its search for a commissioner. It might be a few months before UAH can even get to make its pitch. It’s also unknown how the concerns of COVID-19 will affect the timeline.

UAH is also close to figuring out who would lead that pitch. Smith is a finalist to become the permanent athletics director at UAH. A decision on the hire could be soon.

Smith has not conferred with the consultants about what would UAH’s pitch would be, but he said there are some selling points.

“(The CCHA) is already somewhat set to have a bus league, so that’s probably a knock on us. But I really actually think that most of those teams like coming down here to play. They do play in a nice arena down here. I think we’re in a really good city that has somewhat of a market that some of them do not have. It’s easy to get to Huntsville to play.

“We invested some money (in the in-game experience) and I think it was better. Did it bring more fans? It has not brought more fans yet, but I would think that just the casual observer would have seen a difference this year than in previous years.

“As far as commitment to other resources, we’re already towards the middle of the pack on the way we spend money on hockey compared to the rest of them anyway.

“We bring a lot of smart student-athletes into a conference. The type of graduates that we produce I think would be attractive to them.”

Smith said the Executive Plaza multi-use facility, which would be the new on-campus home for the hockey team, should not be considered a factor. The project is still too much of an idea rather than a definitive plan.

One other option is the Atlantic Hockey Association. The AHA currently has 11 teams, 10 in Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, and one in Colorado (Air Force).

The closest school to Huntsville would be Robert Morris in the Pittsburgh area. RMU, along with Niagara and Army, were former members of College Hockey America along with UAH.

The AHA was cold to the idea of UAH joining in the last round of realignment in 2013, but may be willing to listen this time. However, the AHA might wait for Navy, which would have to upgrade their club team to varsity, to have all three service academies.

That’s not to say AHA wouldn’t consider expanding to 13 teams with UAH and Navy. And it would be intriguing with Huntsville’s military background having the service academies visiting regularly again.

Meanwhile, the WCHA is exhausting any option it has to stay alive.

“We’re still in communication with the two Alaska schools and the (WCHA) office,” Smith said. “They’re updating us on what they’re attempting to do, but there just aren’t many options.”

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Five finishing hockey journey at UAH

The Chargers will finish the 2019-20 season this weekend at the Von Braun Center against Bowling Green. On Saturday evening, five players will skate off the Propst Arena ice as Chargers one last time.

Puck drop is 7:07 p.m. on Friday and 3:07 p.m. on Saturday. Senior Day ceremonies will take place before Saturday’s game.

Austin Beaulieu (forward, Coral Springs, Fla.) is this year’s captain, scoring 14 goals and 24 assists for 38 points in 132 career games played. Beaulieu is a two-time WCHA All-Academic and is a two-time WCHA Scholar-Athlete. Career best: Scored two goals, including the game-winner in overtime, and an assist against Ferris State on Jan. 5, 2019, earning him WCHA Forward of the Week honors.

Connor James (defenseman, Wainwright, Alberta) has four goals and 17 assists in 93 career games. He has made the WCHA All-Academic Team twice. Career best: Scored two goals against Northern Michigan on Feb. 9, 2019.

Sean Rappleyea (defenseman, Sayreville, N.J.) has two goals and two assists in 34 career games. He is a three-time WCHA Scholar-Athlete and WCHA All-Academic.

Teddy Rotenberger (defenseman, Huntsville, Ala.) has appeared in 11 career games, 10 this season. He is a three-time WCHA Scholar Athlete and WCHA All-Academic. Rotenberger is the eighth player from the Rocket City to play varsity hockey at UAH.

Brandon Salerno (forward, Toronto, Ont.) has 12 goals and 14 assists for 26 points in 119 career games. Made the WCHA All-Academic Team twice. Career best: Scored two goals in a victory over Ferris State on Nov. 25, 2017.

Seniors group photo Doug Eagan. Individual player photos by Todd Thompson.

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Chargers fall 4-1 to Lake State in Canada

The frustration carried north of the border.

The Chargers lost to Lake Superior State 4-1 on Saturday at GFL Gardens in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada.

UAH (2-22-6, 2-16-6-1 WCHA) barely avoided being shut out for the third straight game, scoring their only goal of the series with 1:16 left in the third period.

It was the Chargers’ first game in Canada since starting the 1994-95 season at the University of Windsor, although this was the first NCAA game for UAH in Canada.

Lake Superior State (10-20-4, 8-12-4-4 WCHA) clinched a spot in the WCHA playoffs with the win.

The Lakers kept Mark Sinclair busy again in this one, getting 15 shots on the junior. The Chargers only mustered four, but it was the same situation: No goals for either team.

But Lake Superior State broke through in the second period with three goals, the first regulation goals of the weekend by either side.

First, Ashton Calder scored on a breakaway with 9:01 left, ending Sinclair’s shutout streak at 126 minutes and 15 seconds.

It just snowballed after that. Jacob Nordqvist made it 2-0 two minutes later, and then Brayden Gelsinger made it 3-0 just 30 seconds after that.

Will Riedell added the fourth goal for the Lakers at 4:11 of the third period.

Tanner Hickey finally got the Chargers on the board with 1:16 remaining.

The Lakers outshot UAH 33-25 for the game. Sinclair finished with 29 saves.

UAH’s road winless streak is now at 21 games (0-17-4) going back to last season. The Chargers hit the road one last time next week at WCHA-leading Minnesota State.