On Thin Ice: The Uncertain Future of the Last Hockey Team in the South
The University of Alabama-Huntsville has the only Division 1 men's college hockey program south of the Mason-Dixon. But it's fighting for its life.
The University of Alabama-Huntsville is currently hosting the Frozen Four, college hockey’s equivalent of the Final Four, in an arena in Tampa. That may sound a bit strange — what's a Deep South institution doing at an NCAA hockey championship? But the UAH Chargers are the only Division 1 men's hockey program below the Mason-Dixon line, and they boast a rich, 33-year history that includes 11 seasons in D-1 and NCAA tournament appearances in 2007 and 2010. In 1987, Alabama Governor George Wallace (yes, that one) named the northern Alabama city the "Hockey Capital of the South.” Unfortunately, the Chargers run as one of college hockey’s 58 D-I programs could be over soon.
For six weeks in late 2011, the 23 young men on the roster and the coaching staff believed the 2011-2012 season would be their last. On October 24, citing a travel budget that cost more than the school's other six men's sports combined — their distance from the other schools in the country with hockey teams means they usually have to travel hundreds of miles just to play a game — UAH interim president Malcolm Portera said the team would move to club level beginning the following year. Dr. Robert Altenkirch, the college's new president, reversed that decision on December 6, but he only committed university funds through the end of the 2012-2013 season.
UAH's exorbitant travel costs are exacerbated by their being the sole D-I program without a conference. The College Hockey America Conference disbanded after the 2009-2010 season, and UAH attempted to gain entrance to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association — but the CCHA denied their application in 2009. "We had more than expected a yes. Our then-athletic director had planned a press conference so that we could roll it out and have a great time," says Geof Morris, the school's interim assistant Sports Information Director and the man behind SaveUAHHockey.com. "It was a pretty stunning blow to us at the time."
The team continued to play, but being an independent squad located hundreds of miles from the nearest potential opponent creates multiple problems.
"The scheduling we do now is like Murderer's Row," athletic director William "E.J." Brophy says. "Basically, we're everybody's homecoming." Between November and February, the Chargers played 21 games, and only two of those were held at UAH's Propst Arena.
Getting into a conference would simplify scheduling and also assist with recruiting. "When you're in Alabama and you're recruiting for hockey, you're going to be recruiting a lot of kids from the north and from the East Coast," Brophy says. "When you start talking about being in league with this school and that school, it puts the kids and their parents in a comfort level, and it shows stability. When you're the only team south of the Mason-Dixon Line and you're not in a conference, you seem to be the third wheel out there by yourself."
Fortunately for UAH, their troubles come in the midst of a massive realignment in college hockey. The plan is to get the Chargers into the Western Collegiate Hockey Association for the 2013-2014 season. If they do manage to become the WCHA’s 10th team, UAH will call universities like Alaska-Fairbanks, Alaska-Anchorage, and Northern Michigan conference-mates. It would mean flights and more interminable bus rides — it's 936 miles and 19 hours to Lake Superior State University, for example — but hockey would continue to exist on a D-I level at the school.
Some teams in the WCHA have reservations about allowing UAH into the league, many relating to additional travel and the costs associated with getting people and gear to and from Alabama. School officials understand they cannot alter geography, but they can attempt to ease these concerns. The Frozen Four represents the best, and perhaps the last, opportunity for UAH's administration to win over the WCHA's other nine schools. President Altenkirch, AD Brophy, and coach Chris Luongo are all in Tampa Bay to schmooze, wine, and dine.
"I'll be honest with you: We're going to be shaking a lot of hands. We're going to be buying some steaks. We're going to be going out for some drinks. I'll be having Shirley Temples because I don't drink alcohol, but I'll be happy to buy somebody a beer," Brophy says.
Coach Luongo is a veteran of cancelled programs. He lost his previous job when Wayne St. University folded its hockey team following the 2007-2008 season. A Michigan State grad with 15 years of playing experience in the NHL, AHL, and Germany's DEL, Luongo splits his time between coaching and trying to save his new program. After landing a lifeline from Altenkirch in December, UAH managed to schedule 30 games for the 2012-2013 season.
"We have a couple stretches in the schedule that are extremely difficult in terms of being on the road a number of weekends in a row," the 92nd pick in the 1985 NHL draft says. "But there's a light at the end of the tunnel, meaning that if we're able to achieve conference membership in '13-'14, it will be a means to an end."
Away from the drama, the Chargers are a crew of college kids playing hard and trying to win in unfamiliar arenas all across the country. They do so infrequently, with just six victories — compared with 56 losses — over the past two seasons. But the long trips create a tight, eclectic group. Captain Curtis deBruyn, a junior finance major who speaks with an accent that suggests his Calgary upbringing, loves being a member of the team despite the hardships.
"We're split 50-50 between the United States and Canada, and we have one guy from Finland. We have a couple guys from Georgia. Michigan. Wisconsin. BC. Alberta. Ontario. We have quite the mix. It's the United Nations over here," he says, laughing. "But I think it's good that way. We can bring our stories from where we're from."
On those rare occasions when the Chargers do play at home, the crowd comes out to support their squad. Perhaps not as many people show up as they did before — the constant losing makes cheering harder — but Huntsville's nearly 500,000 residents still turn out in numbers to watch hockey.
"We are the only UAH activity that routinely brings together thousands of people," SaveUAHHockey.com's Morris says. "We are the ambassadors of the university to the city." The message is clear: a demotion to club level would end a grand tradition at the university.
Until then, though, the Chargers endure. The administration and coaching staff will continue searching for a conference to join, and they hope to announce good news this summer. As for the players, they have at least one more year on college hockey's highest level. For now, they’ll keep chasing the puck.