Rumors have been swirling for the past few months about the University of Alabama-Huntsville preparing to shut down the hockey team.
These rumors spiked within the last couple of weeks and peaked with a false report that the university was on the verge of disbanding the team for the upcoming season. This culminated in a rally call by fans, students and alumni directed at interim President Dr. Malcolm Portera, who holds a key role in deciding the hockey team’s future.
Dr. Portera has heard these pleas and is doing his best to help save UAH hockey.
“We are looking closely at the entire athletic department right now,” said Dr. Portera. “We are looking at places where we can be competitive and where we need to invest more. We have been in the Elite Eight in basketball and the championship game in softball, but with hockey we have the problem of not being in a conference. We have won in the past in Division II, but have struggled recently in Division I.”
Surviving as an independent hockey program is possible, but extremely difficult.
“It’s the single hardest thing to do,” said Niagara Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin nearly two years ago when UAH announced it would be competing as an independent. These words have proven true, and it does not look like the search for a conference will be getting easier anytime soon for the Chargers.
“The conference situation in hockey is in a state of significant flux,” said Dr. Portera. “The Big 10 teams are gravitating towards a Big 10 hockey conference. The CCHA (Central Collegiate Hockey Association) has turned us down and is now seeing a significant movement of teams and may not be in existence soon.”
Can a hockey program be successful as an independent in Division I?
The creation of the Big Ten hockey conference leaves a lot of uncertainty for several teams, including UAH. The CCHA is one of the very few conferences the Chargers had a realistic chance of being accepted into soon. However, with its possible demise due to the creation of the Big Ten hockey conference, it will make finding a conference for UAH even harder.
Dr. Portera also mentions two challenges that are making it difficult for the hockey team:
Number one, we don’t have a rink on the campus. All of the home games are played at the Von Braun Civic Center. The VBCC also hosts a semi-pro team (The Huntsville Havoc) which gives us competition.
Secondly, we currently invest a significant amount of money in the hockey program, but this is still not as much as other Division I schools are investing at this point. I have talked to other athletic directors and all agree that we would have to make more of an investment, although our resources right now are limited.
Just gaining acceptance in to a hockey conference does not solve all of the problems for the Chargers. The money required to maintain a team in a Division I conference is currently not possible at the moment for the university.
“[Joining a conference] would require an increase in resources that we just do not have,” said Dr. Portera. “This is not a decision we will make soon.”
Not all news is bad news for the Chargers however. Dr. Portera has said the university fully intends to kick off hockey this season and remain independent for now. The conference issue has also provided an emotional spark for the players this season.
“It has really ignited the team more than ever,” said senior forward Jamie Easton. “As we sit and watch how the conferences are being realigned and that no one is making a move to bring us in yet, it has the team extremely motivated to prove that we belong in a conference. I think we can definitely prove ourselves and get into a conference this year with the strength of our schedule.”
The Chargers will certainly have plenty of opportunities to prove themselves this season with games against very strong Division I teams such as Ohio State, Western Michigan and Nebraska-Omaha.
Fan support is also extremely important this season and there have been several recent efforts to showcase how much the city supports Charger hockey.
The website www.saveUAHhockey.com has been keeping fans updated ever since the Chargers were denied admission in to the CCHA in 2009. The site has links to a Facebook fan page, online petition and recent news on UAH hockey. There is also a link that tells fans what they can do to help, such as simply writing a thank you email to the schools who have scheduled UAH this year.
The easiest and most obvious way to show support for the team is to attend the home games. Remember, all current UAH students get in absolutely free with student ID. The future of the hockey program may very well depend on fan and community support this year, making this season perhaps the most important in Charger history.