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.


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.


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.”


UAH taking steps toward program’s next chapter

It’s been almost three months since seven WCHA schools announced plans to leave the conference and form their own league in the 2021-22 season.

The announcement caught UAH by surprise. The future of the WCHA was suddenly in doubt, which makes the future of Charger hockey uncertain.

UAH officials are confident they will find a new conference for hockey to play in, whether it’s with the WCHA, the Group of Seven, or elsewhere.

There haven’t been any formal talks with the Group of Seven to possibly be the new league’s eighth team, but if the WCHA dissolves, that’s where UAH would currently like to go. UAH head coach Mike Corbett says there are several factors that can change things further.

“For lack of a better term, the seven schools are looking to become free agents,” Corbett said. “There’s so many shoes that can drop. Whether it be overall realignment, the Alaska schools and their viability, and you have some other schools that many not be necessarily happy in the current league that they’re in. And you’ve got (independent) Arizona State, who can be a very viable player in the college hockey world.”

“The focus of most of our conversations right now are about having everything in place to have a good season,” said Cade Smith, who became UAH’s interim athletic director in June. “Now that we know at least where Alaska is for this season, it’s business as usual right now.”

In the meantime, UAH is preparing for future change by looking inward, reviewing the hockey program and its support structure.

“Anytime you have that opportunity to reassess what you’re doing, it can be a positive thing,” Smith said. “These are the things we think we’re doing well, but there are great opportunities for us to improve. At the end of the day, it’s how can we best impact the student-athlete experience of the 30 or so hockey players and every athlete we have on campus.”

The Group of Seven stated in their announcement that they want members who display “a level of institutional investment that demonstrates significant commitment to their hockey programs and facilities.”

Does this imply that, beyond geographical challenges, UAH does not invest enough in its hockey program?

UAH president Dr. Darren Dawson says the university’s financial support of the hockey program is above the WCHA average.

“For instance, we provide $560,000 for the hockey program’s base operating budget,” Dawson said. “That’s fourth out of the 10 teams in the WCHA. The average school in the league spends $433,359, so we’re well above average. Regarding athletic aid awarded to our players, we also rank fourth with a budget figure of $586,678. The average spent in this category for WCHA teams is $527,571.”

“The support has been great,” according to Smith. “We had a good meeting with some donors, and the outlook is really positive and committed. I don’t think people are worried. I think they’re just want to know what the next step is going to be so they can be all in.”

“Our alumni support is fantastic,” Corbett said. “Our alumni is giving more money to the athletic department than all the other teams combined.”

While that is good news, the rest of the college hockey world can only perceive what they see on game nights.

“I think one thing other schools want to see is a different commitment level to hockey,” Smith said. “And I think that’s fair.

“Whether their perception is reality or not, they want to see commitment in a different way. So we’re working now to define what that is, and then to make it evident that we’re committed to hockey.”

One sign many of taken for university commitment is a plan for a multi-use facility on campus that would be the new home for hockey, basketball, and volleyball. UAH president Dr. Bob Altenkirch, whom Dawson took over for last month, unveiled the plan back in April, and the University of Alabama System board of trustees approved the development’s addition to the campus master plan in June.

However, a new arena is still a long way from reality.

“It is our hope that we can move quickly on various aspects of the development, including the multi-purpose facility,” Dawson said. “However, the truth is that it will take private support for these developments, which takes time, and the planning and construction of such a facility is a lengthy process as well.”

“While the arena does show commitment to hockey, we can still show commitment to hockey right now,” Smith said.

The Chargers’ opening series at Propst Arena is October 26 and 27, starting WCHA play against league favorite Minnesota State. UAH has 14 home dates this season.

UAH athletics administration has been taking steps to increase attendance, which has slowly declined since its first season in the WCHA, and giving fans a better experience at the Von Braun Center.

UAH’s recent record at home has been poor (11-29-4 over the last three seasons), but there was no boost when the Chargers were playing better. There’s more to increasing attendance than just on-ice performance.

“We’re having meetings about how to make the fan experience better and more engaged,” Smith said. “Number one is trying to get a more intimate hockey venue, even though we’re in a large room. We’ve been working to change how general admission tickets work, and it’s not just all going to be in the upper bowl. We’re going to try to fill the lower bowl every night. That’s going to hopefully increase engagement to get people where they bleed from the bottom up instead of the opposite.

“The Pep Band is going to 100-plus, so they will have to move up to the upper bowl. I think there’s already some things that are going to be better just naturally.”

Smith said they are looking at having an emcee, somebody in charge of music, and somebody in charge of promotions and fan contests, to make they game more fun even for those who do not know much about hockey. The staff has also had meetings with the Huntsville Havoc, which has done well filling the arena, about fan engagement.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Smith said. “We’ve got somebody here in town who’s got a pretty good idea of how to do it. We can figure out what things work in the SPHL that are allowed with the NCAA.

“It’s not always about how much money do you put into it. Sometimes it’s about how many humans you have available to do things.”

The video streaming of home games is also getting a focus. “One thing we’ve talked about is hopefully having a partnership with the Havoc on some of their equipment, increasing our visibility.” Such improvements would include replays that would also be shown in the arena and different audience camera angles.

“We’re making some progress with just the quality of our cameras and the quality of the image that they’re able to stream.”

“We’re just trying to make things current, for lack of a better term,” Corbett said. “We’ve been trying to put the program on a level that we feel the WCHA is.”

When all is said and done, UAH is confident that the program will show that it will bring something to a conference and keep its place in Division I college hockey.

“I think we have a lot to offer,” Smith said. “Just the financial standing as an institution, I would think we are in probably as good a shape as anyone, if not better than most.”

“I think the place to start these conversations would be internally,” Dawson said. “We need input from our coaches and players. We also need to get the views of our hockey boosters on what they see as a direction for our program and the support they are willing to provide. We need to determine what is going to be in the best interest of the UAH hockey program for our long-range future, so that means we should be very deliberate about our plans and not get lured into a decision made in haste that would lead us to another dead end.”


7 schools announce plan to exit WCHA

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.