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.

What Comes Next — Will Some Come West?

Now to be clear, we want none of these things to happen, but it’s entirely possible that Minnesota State may leave the WCHA (a stronger bet now that Arizona State is angling for a slot in the NCHC) and that the Alaska schools don’t survive the chopping block.  What comes next?

At that point, the WCHA is a 7-team league: four teams in Michigan (Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan, Lake Superior, and Ferris State), and one each in Minnesota (Bemidji State), Ohio (Bowling Green), and Alabama.  That league looks something a bit like this, geographically:

Midpoint, 7-team WCHA

The only thing that league would have going for it would be a killer postseason tournament on a frozen Lake Michigan (or, failing that, one of those crazy Space-X rocket-landing barges flooded with an ice sheet).  A 7-team league would be a hard sell, because the only sensible scheduling mechanism, a 24-game league schedule where you play each team home-and-away, would be brutal on travel for six small schools and Bowling Green.  That’s a league that the Falcons would try to quickly exit if no new teams come in.  It’s also a modestly-upgraded College Hockey America.

But what if another shift in tectonic plates involves some Eastern teams on the western edge of things?  I’m specifically thinking of three schools who have had success in Atlantic Hockey, two of whom were previously in the CHA: Niagara, Robert Morris, and RIT.  Here’s what a geographic footprint with those teams looks like:

Raiding Atlantic Hockey

Now Niagara has been down on its luck the last three seasons, losing 20+ games in each of those campaigns.  RIT has faded a little bit, too, but they’re consistently a solid team.  Lastly, RMU has been scorching hot since the demise of the CHA, winning at least 17 games in every campaign.

Here’s how you make that setup work.  Remember that the WCHA has had a 28-game league schedule for 10 teams: one team you play as a travel pair, and the other eight alternate in a two- or four-game fashion.  Here are your sensible pairings:

  1. UAH – Bemidji.  Neither team has another WCHA team in their state or a neighboring one, the two are rivals, and the Beavers aren’t going to horn in on a rivalry with Tech, the team closest to them.  This is the toughest travel pairing in the league, but someone is going to lose out in any deal like this.
  2. Tech – Northern.  This is an established pairing from the current WCHA setup.
  3. Lake – Ferris.  This is also an established pairing.
  4. BG – RMU.  The two schools aren’t terribly far apart, and Ohioans largely hate Pittsburgh.  Also, losing the pairing with UAH keeps their travel costs down.  Keeping BGSU is key for the health of the league — probably moreso than any other team.
  5. Niagara – RIT.  The two NY schools make sense to put together, especially for those snowy upstate winter weekends.

Pairing UAH and Bemidji also puts teams into a situation where it’s rare that a team will have to make both trips in a season — just once in every four seasons.  Even better, you can do your two-game/four-game flip on the pairings: UAH plays Tech four times and Northern twice, then flips the next season, etc.  That lowers travel costs pretty significantly for everyone save Bemidji and UAH, who unfortunately (for them) don’t fit into any other league.

Let’s do a thought experiment with Bowling Green as the key.  Say it’s the Falcons’ year to travel to Pittsburgh, Huntsville, Tech, Niagara, Ferris, Rochester, and the Soo.

Bowling Green Travel 2018-19

Those all look like bus trips to me.

Losing Minnesota State, Alaska, and Alaska-Anchorage while adding Niagara, RIT, and Robert Morris moves the WCHA from WCHA Lite to CCHA Lite.  Better still, Bowling Green owns the rights to the name of the CCHA.  If we’re going to lose Mankato, I propose that we sell the NCHC the name WCHA and revive the CCHA name.  Half of the league’s teams have a CCHA pedigree (counting Tech’s brief presence in the league), and the CCHA is strongly associated with Michigan and Ohio, if not these schools.  Playing closer to the middle of the country may allow the W(C)CHA to get non-conference games with the schools in that area.  (Emphasis on may.)

If the WCHA loses the Alaska schools, they are on the knife edge of being able to schedule a far-flung league, even one without the long trips to the 49th.  Playing a 28-game league schedule with eight teams means that everyone travels everywhere else in a season.  The Michigan and Ohio teams have to be unenthusiastic about that.  Yes, you travel to Huntsville three years in four, but that’s better than going to Alaska three years in four and twice once every four.

If you’re interested, I’ve developed the CCHA Lite Schedule Format (PDF) of my thinking for this.  I used the template of the home / away / home & home setup of the current WCHA, substituting UAH and BSU for UAA and UAF (figuring that the schedule had worked out for the long travel), RMU for UAH (making the shorter trip for the Falcons), and NU and RIT for BSU and MSU (keeping an in-state pair of schools a bit removed from the rest of the league paired together).  I think that this works pretty well, at least for a start.

There are two pretty big IFs here, but they’re realistic, and if they come to fruition, the WCHA needs to be ready.

What Mankato Leaving the WCHA Might Mean for UAH

Minnesota State announced on Wednesday that they have applied to join the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, known variously as “the National”, the “NCHC”, or the “NaCHo”, both in terms of hoping for tasty, fatty calories or regret that it’s “nacho league”.  Either way, it was a bit of a surprise unless you’re an enterprising reporter who bet that he saw it coming and sniffed around and outed the truth.  It certainly seems that everyone knew that this (leak-cum-)-announcement was coming, because both the WCHA and NCHC had prepared statements: the WCHA sounded pretty disappointed and the NCHC’s public response was, I think, responsibly tepid.  Lastly, a public records request has elicited the publication of Mankato’s letter of interest.

Both Shane Frederick of The Free Press (Mankato) and Jack Hittinger of the Bemidji Pioneer have weighed in over the last couple of days.  Shane is predictably and responsibly sanguine about the Mavericks’ chances, noting that it is a benefit for the program.  Jack is a bit more phlegmatic, and he rightly points out that there are a lot of steps left to take for everyone.

Brad Schlossmann does note that the NCHC doesn’t have to add anyone.  But count me with Drew Evans at the Mavs are very likely to go to the NCHC in two seasons.

But what does all of this mean for UAH?

We’re on the outside looking in, again.  UAH tried to jump to the CCHA when the CHA diaspora happened and Bemidji grabbed a hold of a Maverick tail and rode along with Omaha into the WCHA.  We all know that the CCHA told UAH no, leading to three independent seasons that very nearly killed the program.  The Chargers knocked on the WCHA’s door only after the NCHC was fully realized.

The best thing out of the Big Ten expansion mess may have been that the NCHC formed, as I think that it was far less likely that the other nine teams in the WCHA would want the Chargers’ blood on their hands than, say, the remaining eight CCHA schools who might have been okay with that number and would have been unlikely to jump at the chance to add a flight/long bus trip to a bus league that already had an Alaska problem.

Make no mistake: the 2013 mess showed us that extant league structures mean nothing when conference plates shift violently.  Will our folks be talking to people?  Sure.  But we’re at the mercy of the winds and tides here along with a number of other WCHA schools.

I’ve got a lot of thoughts about realignment options and how UAH would fit into these plans, but those are for another day.  Bring on Realignment 2016.