1,000 games and still kicking

The UAH hockey program will reach a milestone when it opens the season at Notre Dame. The Chargers will be playing their 1,000th game as a varsity program.

It may seem like an arbitrary milestone, but considering the situation the program was in just a few years ago, it’s not insignificant.

Doug Ross coached UAH’s first 673 varsity games, winning 376 of them. His teams won two D-II national titles, two CHA regular-season titles and a CHA tournament title.

It’s well known that UAH is unique for having the only NCAA program in the South, a Division I play-up at a Division II school existing in a world where even large, rich universities need everything to fall into place to even consider starting a varsity hockey program.

So why did UAH promote the ice hockey program from club to varsity in the first place? In 1985, UAH was pushing to move its athletic program from the NAIA to the NCAA, and it needed sports. Hockey was logical because it already had a base of support from its success as a club program. It also had the facility with the Von Braun (Civic) Center, where the Chargers were drawing thousands per game.

Lance West, now the head coach at Alaska, was part of UAH’s first foray into D-I hockey, scoring 113 points.

It was the right setup at the right time. Could it be done in today’s climate at UAH? Considering the newest Division I programs at Penn State and Arizona State, which also had prominent teams at the club level, needed large contributions to get off the ground, it would not seem likely.

UAH didn’t really have to do much more investing to establish a varsity program in 1985, as the ingredients were already there.

The UAH athletic department officially joined the NCAA Division II ranks in 1986, with hockey in tow. The following season, with no established NCAA championship in Division II, the Chargers began “playing up” to Division I in hockey. Just by being in the big leagues, UAH had earned the reputation of being the “Hockey Capital of the South” by gubernatorial proclamation in 1987.

These early varsity seasons were a mixed bag. As an independent, UAH had schedules that were a mix of club, Division I, Division III, and Canadian programs. More Division I teams were added to the schedule over time until the 1991-92 season was mostly Division I.

The Chargers had varying results during its first Division I era, posting a record of 61-81-1.

Mario Mazzuca

Mario Mazzuca, a force on the 1996 D-II championship squad, is UAH’s all-time varsity record holder in goals scored with 96.

With the return of a national championship at the Division II level, UAH followed suit. Here, the Chargers were able to thrive, earning four berths in the NCAA championship and winning titles in 1996 and 1998.

By 1998, Minnesota State, Quinnipiac, and Bemidji State had switched to or announced a switch to Division I, numbering the days of the Division II championship. UAH followed and declared a return to Division I as well.

The 1998-99 season was a transitional year with a mix of Division I and III teams on the schedule. The 1999-2000 season was UAH’s first schedule that was 100 percent Division I.

Jared Ross

Jared Ross, the first Charger to play in the NHL, is UAH’s all-time leading scorer in the modern Division I era with 159 points.

It was also the season that the newcomers and independents to Division I needed leagues to play in. College Hockey America was formed in the summer of 1999 with UAH as a charter member.

Life in the CHA involved a lot of travel with the teams spread out, but it did provide the Chargers a means to succeed at the Division I level. UAH won regular-season conference championships in 2001 and 2003, but found a lot of heartbreak in the CHA tournament, losing in the final (and a chance at an automatic NCAA bid) four times.

Ironically, it was when the Chargers had sub-par years in the regular season did UAH finally make the NCAA tournament. They finished fifth in the CHA in 2007, but the senior-laden Chargers would run the table in the CHA tournament and make the Division I NCAA tournament for the first time. They lost to national top seed Notre Dame in double overtime in the Midwest Regional semifinals.

UAH did the same thing in 2010, taking one-goal games to win the CHA and make the NCAA Midwest Regional again, this time falling to national No. 1 Miami 2-1.

Cam Talbot

Cam Talbot, who is becoming a star with the Edmonton Oilers, anchored the UAH club that earned an NCAA tournament berth as CHA tournament champions in 2010.

However, with the other schools heading to other conferences, that was the last CHA championship, and UAH’s hockey future was very much uncertain.

UAH had applied for, and was denied, a spot in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association in 2009. The school affirmed a commitment for the program as an independent in the short term, but for a program of UAH’s size, being an independent in Division I was just not viable.

Early in the 2011-12 season, UAH announced it would relegate the hockey program back to club status, which was really a death sentence. Establishing a club team would have been tantamount to a hard reset: A new staff, new players, a new schedule — as if it was 1979 again. Who was going to organize all that if the university wasn’t?

UAH’s Varsity Record
Overall: 434-493-72
Home: 295-174-35
Away: 116-295-36
Neutral: 23-24-1

For UAH, it is varsity hockey or bust.

Fortunately, thanks to a grassroots rally and a new university administration with a new commitment to the program, UAH was able to join a reconfigured Western Collegiate Hockey Association and survive.

The Chargers have still had their struggles, sure. Their record has been improving each year, if only little by little. But as UAH embarks on its 1,000th varsity game to begin its 33rd varsity season, we continue to remember how far this program has come, and realize how far it can go.

Here’s to the next 1,000.

Despite the snow, the games go on

A winter storm hit the Tennessee Valley on Friday. Snow fell in the afternoon, changing to freezing rain by the evening, covering roads with a sheet of ice. Many roads were closed.

The Chargers played at the Von Braun Center that night, losing to Ferris State, 2-1. Some may question: Why did the game go on?

“What helped this past Friday was the fact that Ferris stayed at the Embassy Suites and that all our guys live less than four miles from the VBC and have to get to the rink early in game days,” according to UAH Director of Athletics Dr. E.J. Brophy. “This solidified the fact that we would have a hockey game.”

Essentially, if the opponent is here, the games will go on. This has been the way for over 30 years.

It’s common knowledge that our hockey opponents, unlike for UAH’s other sports, are not nearby. Some travel by plane, and/or have lengthy bus rides, as our boys know all too well when they go north to play. They can’t cancel or postpone on the chance that there might be snow or ice in Huntsville. Typically, they deal with worse winter weather conditions for their own home games during the season (although they are more prepared to handle it).

The Chargers salute the few in attendance of Friday's game. (Photo by UAH Athletics/Doug Eagan)

The Chargers salute the fans after Friday’s game. (Photo by UAH Athletics/Doug Eagan)

The announced attendance for Friday’s game was 833. Of course, as is standard practice just about anywhere in sports, that number includes season ticket sales, so the actual number of people in the stands was significantly less than that. Still, it was UAH’s lowest recorded attendance since Jan. 10, 1997.

When it comes to winter weather situations, though, the attendance doesn’t matter. We know the travel conditions are going to prevent fans from coming. All UAH can do is play the games and take the attendance hit.

Brophy added: “It was definitely bare bones regarding vendors, off ice officials (some could not get there due to icy roads), and volunteer help, but we pulled it all together and made it work. Our number one goal was to have a quality college hockey game and we achieved that goal.”

Fortunately, this situation is very rare, but it’s not the first time that winter weather in Huntsville and UAH hockey have crossed paths.

That game on Jan. 10, 1997? The attendance was 574, the lowest in UAH’s varsity hockey history, for a 9-0 win over Bentley. Primary cause: It snowed all afternoon.

I worked in the UAH sports information department at the time, and the dusting that covered the grass when I arrived at the VBC turned into a two inches when I left. While that in itself wasn’t much, like Friday of this week it had done a number on the untreated roads, making travel rather difficult. I lived in Madison, but to be safe I only went as far as UAH and stayed with friends on campus overnight.

That was also a Friday. I was back at the VBC the next afternoon to work the game as the Chargers finished a sweep of Bentley, 7-3. Attendance for that game was 1,007.

But nothing compares to what happened 30 years ago this month. On February 1, 1985, an ice storm dumped several inches of ice and snow, paralyzing north Alabama, knocking out power for days. Yet, UAH played two games against Notre Dame at the Von Braun Civic Center. This was during the Chargers’ last season at the club level. Longtime supporter Terry Long describes his experience:

It’s Friday morning, February 1, 1985. I’m attending a technical short course in Sarasota, Fla. My wife has declined to join me for the weekend because Notre Dame hockey is coming to Huntsville.

Someone calls me out of the lecture telling me that I have an emergency phone call. My wife is frantic telling me that there are five inches of ice on the ground and roads, more is predicted, 50,000 homes are without power in the city, the Notre Dame hockey team is already in town, UAH has announced that the game will be played as scheduled, and come home to take her to the game.

The officials and the Notre Dame team were staying at the Hilton [now the Holiday Inn], which is across the street from the arena. And, the main power lines for the core of the city came into a station about a block from the arena. Given that the participants could skate to one of the few places in the area with power, the game was going to proceed.

I grew up slightly north of here where people actually navigated on ice and snow in the winter. And, I had a vehicle equipped with studded snow tires and a positive-traction rear-end.

Being concerned about the damage that may be occurring to our property, I decided to try to get home. Knowing that jets probably wouldn’t be landing in Huntsville, I made my reservations on a commuter airline that flew Twin Otter aircraft into Huntsville. That was wise because the jet flights were all indeed canceled by the time I got to Atlanta. After arriving in Huntsville, I then found an intrepid van driver who took over an hour to travel the few miles from the airport to our flatland home on the west side of Huntsville.

Well, we made it to game. The sight from the front steps of the VBC of transformers continuing to create blue fireballs in the remaining areas with power is still memorable. The announced attendance was 154.

Johnny Robinson, a.k.a. Squiggy, was the referee. It was a great game. The final score was 7-7. At one point, there were five men from each side in the penalty boxes. And, there was even a goalie-goalie altercation at center ice. It was a true Squiggy game, for those who remember him.

UAH beat Notre Dame the following night 9-4 with 2,152 in attendance. After the games, Notre Dame coach Lefty Smith made a great sour grapes comment that we still quote. After first blaming “a few bad calls,” he chimed “goaltending does a lot to equalize a better team.”

Four Crazy Years

Cole Leaves Program for US National Team Development Program

Cole’s replacement should be announced later this week.

That’s right: today is four years from the day that Coach Cole moved to Ann Arbor to work with the USNTDP, and who could blame him?  UAH Hockey was headed into uncharted waters with life as an independent coming up quickly on the horizon.  None of us knew then how that would go, and goodness knows that it went some very crazy places.  We can look on these last four years as a cycle borne of the complete instability of that uncertainty.  But we know that these things are true:

  1. We’re in a league.
  2. We have a great head coach that’s taking this program forward.
  3. We have a solid recruiting class coming in that is poised to take on large roles from the outset.

Danton’s departure is one of the very first things that I covered here on UAHHockey.com.  He and I stay in touch, and I assure you that he wishes the program well.  I hope that we will soon be a program that can snag one of his kids’ attention for a commitment to play for the Chargers for four years.  That may be more than four years down the line, but hopefully sooner than later.

Your Favorite Charger Hockey Memory Is …

Pretty sure this is Matt Larose's bucket. Photo credit: Timothy Burns

Pretty sure this is CJ Groh’s bucket.
Photo credit: Timothy Burns

It’s been a hard fall for UAH Charger hockey.  But we all know that the ship is turning around, and we can rest our hopes in the future, which we all know is bright.

But with this off week between the 18-game fall and 20-game spring, it’s time for us to ask: What’s your favorite Charger hockey memory?  Mine isn’t the 1998 national championship game, which happened my freshman year.  It’s not Keenan Desmet’s overtime, game-winning goal in the last CHA tournament in 2010, a game that propelled the boys to their second NCAA appearance in four seasons.

No, my favorite Charger Hockey memory was UAH’s 5-4 overtime defeat of now-conference-foe Ferris State University at the 2002 UConn Ice Classic.  “You’re crazy!” is probably what you’re saying.  Hear me out, though:

  1. Everyone loves an overtime game winner.  The radio crew loved Gerald Overton, and to see him bang that one in?  Come on.
  2. Go look at the box: two runs of three straight goals.  That game was exciting, end-to-end, barnstorming hockey!
  3. Two goals by Ryan Leasa!  I love that guy!
  4. ONE OF THOSE GOALS WAS SHORTHANDED!!!  Tell me the last time that you saw a defenseman score shorthanded.  That team was lousy with guys who liked to put shorties in the net — yeah, you, Charlebois — but seeing a defenseman put one in was quality.  Nine Chargers scored a man short in 2002-03, including Jeremy Schreiber, another defenseman, which I had forgotten until I looked at the scoring table.
  5. Two goals for the Zirnis-Ross-Bushey line, which is by numbers the most successful line of the modern Charger era, even if Igor was only on that line for part of a season.  They were clicking that night, as was Charlebois-Hawes-Bresciani.  That was quite the 1-2 punch.
  6. The best player on the ice got just one point — Chris Kunitz, whom you now see starring in Pittsburgh.  He wasn’t a happy camper after that one.

That post-game atmosphere was fun.  The two CHA invitees (Findlay, UAH) had taken down the home school (UConn) and the top-five ranked school.  Remember, this was the Ferris State that won 31 games and made the NCAA tournament, the school’s first appearance in the dance.  Joel Bresciani was grinning ear-to-ear.  Even Coach Ross was in a good mood.  It was a good time.  I have a huge smile on my face just thinking about it.  I was in the building for it, and it was glorious.

What’s your favorite Charger Hockey memory?  Sound off in the comments on Facebook, tweet us back, or send an email to g@uahhockey.com.  We want to know!

Back to The Last Frontier: The history of UAH in Alaska

I first attended UAH hockey games in the 1990-91 season. I remember sitting in the Von Braun Civic Center Arena and watching the Chargers play Alaska-Fairbanks. I remember looking at the season schedule and thinking, “Wow, UAH sure plays teams from Alaska a lot.” This amazed me: The farthest south playing the farthest north, time and again.

Doug McDonald chases after a Nanook in Fairbanks.

Doug McDonald chases after a Nanook in Fairbanks.

At the time, I thought Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks (which has since lobbed “-Fairbanks” off its short name) were UAH’s top rivals. During UAH’s first tenure in Division I, one might see why: From 1987-93, the Chargers played UAF 19 times and UAA 17 times, more than any other opponent in that period — and still more than any opponent not currently in the WCHA or that was in College Hockey America.

The Chargers visit the 49th state for the first time in 20 years when they face the Seawolves at the Sullivan Center in Anchorage. Game times Friday and Saturday are at 10 p.m. Central Time and can be seen on WCHA TV. Alaska-Anchorage visits Huntsville on January 17 and 18, and UAH goes to Fairbanks on January 31 and February 1 to battle the Alaska Nanooks.

Mike O'Connor (right) tumbles after colliding with UAA's Jim Mayes.

Mike O’Connor (right) tumbles after colliding with UAA’s Jim Mayes in Anchorage in Dec. 1991.

When you see UAH’s record against the Alaska schools, you might say “rivals” is a strong word. UAH is 8-27-1 all time against the Seawolves and Nanooks. And two of those wins were losses switched because they were later forfeited by Fairbanks.

Twenty-two of those 36 games were in Alaska, and the Seawolves and Nanooks thrived on their home-ice advantage.

“It was especially tough playing up there,” said Stu Vitue, who played center for the Chargers from 1989-93, making the trips north in all four years. “They had the only two Olympic-sized surfaces that we played on. That was a big advantage for them. All of our ice familiarity was messed up. I remember that our goalies had it pretty rough as all their angles were off. They also seemed to get a lot of help from the hometown refs. Not to mention that both of those teams were pretty good. UAA had some great players and made the NCAA tourney as an independent.”

Unfortunately, there has been a lot of this in Anchorage.

Unfortunately, UAH’s history in Anchorage has involved a lot of this.

Alaska-Anchorage made the NCAA Tournament three times as an independent (1990-92), and reached the quarterfinals in 1991. UAH is 2-15 all time against UAA, and 0-11 in Anchorage.

Alaska-Fairbanks didn’t make the tournament, but was no slouch either. Under Don Lucia, who has been the coach at Minnesota for the past 14 years, the Nanooks averaged 18 wins from 1987-93. The Chargers are 6-12-1 against UAF, and 3-7 in Fairbanks.

Kevin Caputo was a UAH defenseman from 1990-94, making five trips to Alaska in three seasons. “I guess the one bit of hockey memories that I have of the games up there was that they really packed in the fans to each of their games. Not only that but they were loud, especially in Anchorage. It was a great atmosphere to play in. They really love their hockey in Alaska.”

Complicating matters: UAH typically would visit both schools in one trip, making for a grueling – but bonding – experience for the Chargers. In 1987, 1989, 1990, and 1991, UAH would play two games in each city over a span of five or six days. Twice, the Chargers made a stopover for a game before actually going to Alaska: Wisconsin in 1989 and Minnesota in 1990. That’s five road games in a week.

Redoubt Volcano on Dec. 18, 1989 during a continuous eruption that delayed the Chargers getting out of Alaska. (W. White, U.S. Geological Survey)

Redoubt Volcano on Dec. 18, 1989, during a continuous eruption that delayed the Chargers getting out of Alaska. (W. White, U.S. Geological Survey)

And there was the volcano.

On December 14, 1989, Mount Redoubt, an active volcano about 110 miles southwest of Anchorage, erupted shortly after the Chargers arrived.

“One year a volcano went off, making it impossible to fly. We had to bus to Fairbanks from Anchorage, then we had to stay an extra day or two until the air cleared,” Vitue said. It’s about 360 miles between Anchorage and Fairbanks.

And then there was the weather.

“One year we were in Fairbanks and the weather was pretty bad and they were cancelling almost every departure,” Caputo said. “It was just before Christmas as well and most of the players were headed home for the break. Coach Ross was working the phones non-stop to try and find us a flight out. I think he even called the Alabama National Guard at one point to see if they could come and get us. Eventually we were able to get a flight out of Fairbanks.”

“One time a handful of us made the walk from the hotel to the arena. It was probably only a half mile away. However, it was -30 degrees. We all enjoyed the walk but needless to say it was cold.”

Jean-Marc Plante dives for the puck in Anchorage.

Jean-Marc Plante dives for the puck in Anchorage in December 1991.

The long trips were made after fall exams, so the players didn’t miss any class time.

“It was always tough playing in Alaska, especially when we made the trip just before Christmas,” Caputo said. “By that time everyone was ready to go home for the break and see their families.

“As far as the time that it took to get up there, we would typically fly in to Seattle and then into Anchorage. Total travel time was about 12 hours I think.”

Said Vitue: “Being from Seattle I would just hop off the team plane on the layover and be home for Christmas. The B.C. guys would also get off there.”

Lance West fires a shot against the Nanooks in Huntsville.

Lance West fires a shot against the Nanooks in Huntsville in January 1992.

At the end of the 1990-91, the Chargers made a second trip to Anchorage, this time for the NCAA Division I Independents Tournament with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament bid on the line. UAH lost 5-0 to Alaska-Anchorage in the semifinal and 8-2 to Alaska-Fairbanks in the consolation game.

The 1992-93 season saw the Chargers do what a Lower-48 WCHA school will typically do every two years: Make two separate trips to Alaska — one to Anchorage and one to Fairbanks. This may be a concern with the new WCHA, but not uncharted territory for UAH.

Mark Hernandez skates with the puck against UAA in a game in Huntsville.

Mark Hernandez skates with the puck against UAA in a game in Huntsville in Nov. 1991.

“I don’t think it was that difficult for us to travel up there,” Caputo said. “If anything it was a great time for the players to spend some time together, get away from the routine of practicing, doing homework, etc. and bond as teammates.”

Vitue looks back on those trips as his most memorable as a Charger. His final game wearing a UAH sweater was the 1992-93 season finale in Anchorage, the last time the Chargers and Seawolves met.

“The trips were great for team bonding,” Vitue said. “Spending almost two weeks on the road was always something that I looked forward to. Those trips were tough, but I remember them more than any other ones I made while at UAH.”

Special thanks to Stu Vitue and Kevin Caputo for their perspectives, and to UAH Sports Information Coordinator Joey Daniels for searching the archives for the photos included in this article.