Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Sweet Home Alabama

Despite me being back in the saddle here at HBIC, I am proud to bring another reader's article to you today. I don't get a lot of opportunities to cover NCAA hockey since the only games that are broadcast in my area are UND Sioux games. I'm not complaining about those, but there are a large number of teams that I'd really like to see on TV thanks to the power of the Internet and word-of-mouth marketing. Today, Mr. Aaron Duncan brings to us the story of one team that has seen its ascension into Division-I NCAA hockey come with its fair share of hurdles and obstacles.

Aaron is a major sports fan. He has a major collection of baseball caps, loves the beauty of the 6-4-3 double-play, and appreciates the game of hockey at the collegiate level. Today, Aaron brings to us the story of the University of Alabama-Huntsville hockey program. Honestly, it's quite an intriguing look at a collegiate program where one wouldn't suspect a top-flight hockey program exists. Here's Aaron!

If you’re like me, the first place you think about when you think of ice hockey is Huntsville, Alabama. Wait... Alabama? Ok, let me re-phrase that, the last place you think about is Huntsville, Alabama. As odd as that seems, the University of Alabama in Huntsville is home to the Chargers, an NCAA Division-I ice hockey program, and a pretty good one at that.

Collegiate sports have always fascinated me more than the pros, and hockey is no exception. My first exposure to NCAA hockey was with various teams in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, but, living in southeast Missouri, teams like North Dakota and Minnesota seemed so far away and non-accessible. I began to study the other conferences looking to see if there were any teams closer to home, but did not find a "home team". I did find one interesting geographic anomaly and that was the UAH Chargers. As I began delve deeper into the Chargers story, I began to realize how easy it is to become a sentimental fan of these underdogs.

The UAH program began as a club team in the Southern Collegiate Hockey Association in 1979 and won the SCHA championship their first three year in existence. The Chargers obtained NCAA varsity status in 1985, and competed in Division-II until the NCAA closed it after the 1986-87 season. This development forced the program to move up to Division-I. UAH operated as an independent team at this level until the reinstatement of Division II for the 1992-93 season. It was during this period that the Chargers developed a serious rivalry with the Bemidji State University Beavers. The two teams fought it out for the NCAA title for several years in a row, with the Chargers winning their first national championship in 1995 and followed up with another title in 1998.

The NCAA again shut down Division-II at the start of the 1998-99 season forcing the Chargers to move to Division-I again as an independent. The following season, UAH joined with Army, Air Force, Bemidji State, and Niagara to form the College Hockey America conference. Again, the Chargers continued to win, making six appearances in CHA Tournament finals and winning the conference championship twice. Due to this, they also earned two trips to the NCAA Division-I tournament, including this past season. They have even been awarded the right to host the 2012 “Frozen Four Tournament” in Tampa, Florida.

Sadly from this point on, the fate of the UAH program is in question. The CHA ceased operations at the end of the 2009-2010 season with four teams leaving for other conferences. Nebraska-Omaha and Bemidji State have joined the WCHA, while Robert Morris and Niagara are joining Atlantic Hockey. UAH made an application to join the CCHA conference but, by a vote of acclimation, were denied entry and this is where things start to get troublesome.

The CCHA commissioner, Tom Anastos, issued the following statement in a news release, "The league completed its due diligence of the application for membership submitted by the University of Alabama in Huntsville with careful consideration and discussion of various issues. At this time we have chosen to maintain our membership at its current level The CCHA will remain focused on maintaining and strengthening our existing members to ensure the conference’s continued success and long-term viability." This is a long winded way of saying nothing so speculation as to their intent is wide spread.

While searching various blogs and articles on the matter I have come across a few theories for the UAH denial. The first theory is that it would be cost prohibitive for the smaller conference teams to have to travel to Huntsville for games. The CCHA just lost Nebraska-Omaha to the WCHA. This is a team with a similar distance from the majority of its former CCHA members as the Chargers would be if accepted into the conference. Perhaps the CCHA is wanting to see how finances are across the conference without the travel expenses they have had in the past. It is even rumored that UAH had offered to help offset the additional travel expense to the other teams, but if that’s the case, it did not help their bid for membership.

Another theory is that the CCHA is holding out for a possible Big-10 hockey conference. If six of the Big-10 teams are active in a varsity sport they would be able to organize under the Big-10 name. This would also pull teams from the WHCA. Of course, after the last round of NCAA conference adjustments this did not come to play, but could still be a future possibility.

The theory that seem to currently have the most strength is that the CCHA is holding out for Penn State, who are working on moving their men’s and women’s programs up from the club level to Division-I. Now I personally find this hard to stomach if it is the case. To turn away an established program with a competitive record behind them and proven facilities for a higher-profile name that doesn’t have any experience at this level is complete nonsense.

Probably the most emotional of theories is that it is simply a matter of regional clique. Like it or not, many in the ice hockey community look down on any organization that forms in the south. I have noticed this even as high as the NHL where teams like Florida, Phoenix, and Dallas have a hard time getting the same respect the northern teams do. I think this line of thought is more an emotional knee-jerk reaction than actual fact.

As it stand now, the Chargers will be operating as an independent which will be very difficult this day and age. Without conference backing, it will be difficult to schedule games. They will have play teams during available non-conference times. There will also be a serious lack of media coverage and available scholarships. This will seriously hurt their chances in recruiting talent. These factors will make it very difficult - if not impossible - to maintain operations without a conference home in today’s economy.

So what we are faced with is a hockey program with 25 years of winning experience and a proven fan base that is on the verge of extinction due to outside factors they have little to no control over. A conference, the CCHA, that could come out of this with "egg on their face" should the UAH program fold, and the reputation of collegiate hockey, who face the possibility of their host team for the Division-I tournament closing down prior to the event, are in serious jeopardy of looking like a second-rate outfit rather than the highest standard of American developmental hockey. It’s sad and infuriating, but at the present we have little choice but to wait and see. I hope and pray that the University of Alabama-Huntsville Chargers are able to find a home soon. It would be a true shame to see so much hard work and pride just vanish for no better reason that pure politics and money.

Wow! What an excellent article! Thank you, Aaron, for your passionate look at UAH hockey!

Let's get to the meat of this article: the existence of UAH hockey. Should they have a team in the CCHA? Yes. Very much so. But, as Aaron pointed out, this is not the case. The history that the Chargers have written in the NCAA's various Divisions would put them on the same level as that of Maine, Boston College, and Denver, yet they have little to show for their efforts. And, as Gross Misconduct's 2009 article states, this move to exclude UAH could be "the first domino to fall in what could prove to be a herd-thinning situation in college hockey".

I want you all to click this link which will take you to the "Save UAH Hockey" page. The link is the "How to help" section, and the authors give a ton of excellent suggestions to show that UAH hockey is more than just some random collegiate sport. It means a great deal to the University of Alabama-Huntsville, the community, its fans, and the people that work for, with, and around the team.

Thanks again, Aaron, for bringing this to my attention, and I really hope that the UAH team will exist in 2012 to host the Frozen Four. I'll do my part, and help the team out by following the suggestions on the linked page. I hope you will as well!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


V said...

Thank you both for helping us publicize what is going on with our program. We have a long and tough road ahead of us but I can guarantee you that the "Charger Faithful" as we are called will not give up on our program. We really appreciate anyone helping us get the word out about our program’s situation. To quote the Save UAH Hockey page “30 years of hockey means we won’t go without a fight!”

To learn more about what is going on you can visit our Save UAH Hockey facebook page, the official university page (http://www.uahchargers.com), the fan page (Saveuahhockey.com) and finally Uahhockey.com for general information as well as comments from our head coach.

Thanks once again for helping us get the word out!

Sage Confucius said...

I was poking around the UAH site and noticed that two of Brice Geoffrion's brothers play for them. Nashville is only a couple hours north of Huntsville. It seems like that would be a good partnership to build on, and perhaps have the Predators work on behalf of UAH toward CCHA membership. Even though Brice has been sent to Milwaukee the family connection with the Preds is there. Use it!