Monday, October 24, 2011

Lonesome Day

The Hockey Capital of the South has been sacked and pillaged. Its famous blue, grey and white flag has been taken down, and a green one flies in its place.

Dr. Malcolm Portera, interim president of the University of Alabama-Huntsville and chancellor of the University of Alabama system, today announced the end of UAH's run as an NCAA hockey school in a cold statement that stands in stark contrast to the passion of those who fought for the program's survival.
I want to share with you a decision that has been made following months of careful study. As a result of a financial analysis of our athletic program, and numerous conversations I have had with athletic directors, university presidents and commissioners of Division I ice hockey programs, it has become obvious that, for the best interest of this university, our athletic department and the ice hockey program, we move the team from the Division I level back to its original classification as a club sport at the end of the 2011-2012 season.

In this economic environment universities must examine the value of every dollar we spend, and we must view every option to use those funds for the betterment of the entire campus. The cost savings from this move will allow the university to enhance the operating budgets of the other 15 sports on campus, provide more student aid to a greater number of student-athletes, and, at the same time, enable us to increase our investment in high-demand academic programs to better position UAHuntsville for future growth.

I met with the players and coaches this morning to pledge the university’s full assistance to the student-athletes participating in our ice hockey program. We will continue to honor the scholarship commitment made to these students, and if a student-athlete chooses to transfer to another program, we will provide help in making that relocation as seamless as possible. Coaches will remain on our staff through May 31, 2012, and the university will assist them in their endeavors to seek future employment.

Charger ice hockey will very much remain a part of the culture of this university and the community. However, the opportunity to save the hockey program is much improved by reverting to a club team status. We appreciate the understanding of the campus, the university’s athletic supporters and the community, and we look forward to a robust hockey presence in the years to come.
Just like that, a three-year fight ends with finishing a funeral procession of a season, helping the scholarship players and full-time coaches out of town and likely ACHA membership. It's an unthinkable situation that I wouldn't wish on the players, coaches and fans of any program, who have to be feeling the exact opposite of how I felt on September 17th, 2010.

A while back, I went into some of the shared history between Penn State and UAH - the 1984 club national championship that both schools claim. That situation was just one small part of a great rivalry between two of non-varsity college hockey's best programs from UAH's formation in 1979 through its elevation to varsity status in 1985 - a period that saw Huntsville win the 1982 and 1983 club championships as well as that disputed one in 1984. As an NCAA Division II member, the Chargers were also highly successful, winning the 1996 and 1998 NCAA championships - the only NCAA titles by any UAH team. PSU's last meetings with the Chargers were in October, 1996 and resulted in 15-0 and 3-1 wins for the then-defending DII champs.

Arguably, the beginning of the end came when the NCAA dropped Division II for hockey following the 1998-1999 season, forcing teams to move up to Division I or down to Division III. UAH, along with now-fellow defunct programs Findlay and Wayne State and others, moved up and formed College Hockey America. Unfortunately, thanks in part to the wide geographic spread of CHA and the tenuous finances of members playing at a higher-than-planned level, the conference was on shaky ground almost from the beginning. The Chargers continued to do what they did best, win, including CHA regular season championships in 2000-2001 and 2002-2003 to go with conference tournament titles and NCAA tournament berths in 2007 and 2010.

That surprising 2010 tournament win was significant because it was the CHA's death knell following years of attrition that left the conference with just four members - UAH, Robert Morris, Niagara and Bemidji State - and no NCAA tournament autobid. The latter three schools all found other conferences, but Huntsville, thanks to a rejected application to the CCHA in 2009, was left to twist in the wind last season and this season as an independent.

As a result of that untenable situation, the slow decay that began on the ice around 2006 (both CHA tournament titles came in spite of a losing regular season record) bottomed out with a combined 4-33-3 mark since the start of last season. Attendance dropped to 1,278 per game last season, down about 700 fans per game from five years prior. The program struggled to fill out a full schedule and get opponents to travel to Huntsville, particularly during the second half of the season when most schools are locked in conference play (UAH has 31 intercollegiate games scheduled this year, just 12 of which are at home). Recruits looked elsewhere, as did head coach Danton Cole, who left for a position with the U.S. National Team Development Program after the 2009-2010 season. Perhaps the cruelest insult of all was that in spite of the massive conference shakeup over this past summer, UAH was never even seriously rumored to join one of the reformulated leagues.

Jared Ross wore the C as a player and now leads efforts off the ice.

In July, Charger legend Jared Ross (the first Alabama born and trained player to play in the NHL, an important part of UAH's hockey legacy) sent a dire-sounding email to program boosters.
To say that UAH Hockey is at a time of desperation is an understatement. For those of you that have not yet heard the news, the existence of the program is greatly threatened. To break it down fairly short, the University of Alabama Systems is currently dealing with major budget cuts on the Huntsville campus and are very seriously looking at the possibility of completely demolishing Charger Hockey.
From there, things moved pretty rapidly towards today's news. With the help of Ross and others funds were raised (as of six weeks ago, $200,000 per year). Petitions were created. Community and student support were obtained. All of which was ultimately futile in the eyes of the school's shortsighted interim president, who doesn't even have to hang around past the end of the month to feel the ramifications of his decision.

In an ironic twist of the knife, UAH will serve as the host school for this year's Frozen Four, held in Tampa, FL. That will be long after the Chargers' final varsity game, scheduled for February 25th against the USNTDP (the final game against an NCAA opponent is two weeks prior at Miami, their final home game of that variety is December 31st against Mercyhurst).

Some will (and in fact, already have) undoubtedly and unfortunately push some of the blame for this situation at Penn State, citing the CCHA's rejection (which was rumored to be in part to hold the spot in the league for PSU, a program that didn't exist yet) and...well, I'm not really sure what else they have on us. It's pretty flawed logic to act as if this was a simple trade of one program for another or as if UAH wasn't on thin ice prior to Penn State's entry.

Hopefully most remember that it was Penn State which triggered the reshuffling of the conference landscape from its previously locked-in state, giving UAH one last chance to find a possibly program-saving conference home. Or that PSU has always joined with the rest of college hockey in its support of UAH. The Icers even attempted to play the Chargers this season at their home Von Braun Center, a plan that was short-circuited by the arena's being booked on the weekend of February 17th and 18th.

Our brothers in college hockey have TYT's best wishes as they continue the fight, should they choose to do so, and wherever it may lead. I'll be demonstrating my support on this horrible occasion by donning the game-worn jersey of former Chargers defenseman Brennan Barker (2006-2010).

Not in my closet: a game-worn UAH softball jersey. Just saying.


  1. First off, I'd like to say great job with the blog. As a big time hockey fan and PSU fan, its nice to see update on the program.

    I'm also living in Ohio currently, and find it difficult to fill my hockey fix in Columbus, OH.

    Anyways, I think it is a shame that UAH is going back to the club level. Having a Division 1 hockey team in the south was a great thing to try to grow the game. I was wondering, if the NCAA may allow the UAH players to transfer without having to sit out the typical year.

    If so, I wonder if PSU would have any interest in picking up a player or two. Seems like a mutually beneficial thing as some players can continue a Div. 1 career on a team that should have some roster spots available, while Penn State could gain a few players with a little bit of Div. 1 playing experience that could help the transition to the top level.

    What do you think?

  2. Hey Derek, thanks for the nice words - it really does mean a lot!

    The UAH situation has always been a little bit personal to me, just because I'm a big believer in being defined to a large extent by your rivals. UAH was ours during an important time in the Icers' growth, and as the lead dog, they pushed us to be better, which helped lead to everything since. As one of the programs that "got out" of club so to speak, and as really one of the most unique teams imaginable thanks to their location, I really wanted to see this work out somehow.

    That's an excellent thought you have about maybe picking up a player or two. I was a little disappointed that we didn't on the women's side when Wayne State went under, but that was a little different because it happened so close to the season. We have almost a full year to take a look at these guys. Admittedly, I don't have enough familiarity with UAH's roster to be able to say who might be a good fit, but I don't feel like I need to. Even if they're not perfect for our system or the caliber of hockey we want to play, opening our arms to anyone who wants in and doing right by those players would be a tremendous move on a number of levels.

  3. Nicely written. The best of all college hockey sites so far.