Just like that, it's all over.
The University of Alabama-Huntsville announced on Monday morning at uahchargers.com that it will downgrade its men's ice hockey team from an NCAA Division-I sport to a club program at the end of the 2011-12 campaign. With that proclamation, 32 years of southern hockey tradition, including 27 seasons as an NCAA competitor, have gone swirling down the proverbial drain.
I wrote about the Chargers' predicament for USCHO.com back in August, when the program was first believed to be on the chopping block. I wasn't able to talk with UAH interim president Malcolm Portera by phone at that time, but he did send me an e-mail message:
"I have no comment to make about the hockey program at UAH," he wrote. "The harsh economic realities that face all of higher education have motivated us to look at our entire athletic program. We are in the process of doing this."
He also apologized and said it wasn't an appropriate time to be commenting. Two months later, and just one week before Portera is due to step down from his position, the UAH hockey program is also on its way out—at least, as an intercollegiate team.
For all intents and purposes, though, it's being dropped.
UAH got its start back in 1979 as a club program, where it claimed three national championships, before elevating itself to NCAA Division-I status for six seasons (1986 to 1992). The Chargers competed as an independent in that time, against the likes of Air Force, Alaska Anchorage, Alaska Fairbanks, Army and Notre Dame, with the top team among that group earning an annual berth to the NCAA Tournament.
UAH dropped down to the NCAA Division-II level in 1992–93, and went on to win a pair of national titles before the Division-II hockey national championship was eliminated in 1998. That necessitated a move back up to Division-I, where the Chargers finally gained a conference home in what was known as College Hockey America.
They went on to celebrate two regular season and two CHA playoff titles over the next 11 years, and also earned two automatic berths into the NCAA Tournament. Each time the Chargers lost by a single goal, first to Notre Dame in 2008 (in double OT, no less), and then to Miami (Ohio) in 2010.
The CHA, unfortunately, began to come apart starting in 2004, as schools such as Findlay and Wayne State dropped their programs, and others like Air Force left the conference.
Ultimately reduced to four schools in UAH, Niagara, Bemidji State and Robert Morris, the CHA finally disbanded in 2010, and UAH was subsequently shunned by the Central Collegiate Hockey Association—home to Miami, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State—when it applied for conference membership.
It was widely believed that gaining a new conference home was absolutely essential to UAH's survival, even though the school was situated hundreds of miles away from its nearest Division-I opponents. Now it's a moot point, even though UAH's last official varsity hockey act will come when its serves as host of the 2012 NCAA Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla. next April, almost two months after the Chargers play their final game.
Despite what some university administrators might believe, playing Alabama or Tennessee at the club hockey level is going to be nowhere near the same as facing off against Michigan or Michigan State in an NCAA Division-I contest. UAH's schedule this year alone featured no less than eight schools that took part in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, including Western Michigan, New Hampshire, Denver, Merrimack, Miami and defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth.
The Chargers were off to an 0-7-1 start when the announcement to downgrade the program was made, with the lone tie coming against Air Force in Huntsville. UAH went 4-26-2 last season as an independent, with its last winning campaign coming in 2005-06 when the Chargers finished 19-13-2 overall and 12-7-1 in CHA play.
Some supporters of the UAH program charged that they weren't given enough time to raise sufficient monies to help fund the hockey team, or to drum up local business support for that purpose. They also said that Portera did not listen to any of the financial solutions that they proposed.
“There is no business plan, no marketing plan and no corporate sponsorship plan here," said Charger hockey alumnus Nathan Bowen at uscho.com. "There are so many business-savvy alumni who have pledged to help and what we pledged to do was to have the school provide the scholarships and we would fund the rest and take on the financial burden."
There was even a web site, saveuahhockey.com, established for the express purpose of keeping the program alive. On Monday, though, its blue logo was banded with a black stripe containing the numbers "1979-2012," signifying the years that UAH skated at the intercollegiate level. Above that was a single word in bold text: GOODBYE. There was also a listing of all the players that have skated for the Chargers at the varsity level, along with the seasons they did so.
It's no secret that NCAA Division-I hockey isn't an inexpensive endeavor, what with equipment, travel, ice and insurance costs. The Chargers didn't draw huge crowds to the 6,800-seat Von Braun Center, either, which is a off-campus community facility that has also hosted several professional minor-league hockey teams over the years.
The Chargers outlasted all of them, save the still-existing Huntsville Havoc of the Southern Professional Hockey League; but that will come to an end in late February when UAH hosts the U.S. Under-18 Team in Huntsville in its final series as an NCAA program.
The university will likely reallocate the funds saved from downgrading hockey to improving its other 13 NCAA sports, which still compete at the Division-II level (there is no UAH football program). It was believed that up to 40 percent of the overall athletic budget was attributed to Charger Hockey, its flagship program and its only NCAA Division-I sport.
Scholarships for those student-athletes who choose to stay at UAH are expected to be honored, whether they play club hockey or not, assuming a club team even gets formed for 2012-13. Players who transfer to other schools after this season will be able to do so without having to sit out an academic year, as transfers traditionally must do.
Head coach Chris Luongo, a Michigan State graduate who played over 200 NHL games as a defenseman, will be looking for a new job, as will his assistants.
“There is a tremendous hockey culture in the Huntsville area that was built on the presence and hard work of UAH hockey and it will suffer greatly from this decision," Luongo said at USCHO.com. "I want to thank UAH hockey supporters for the tremendous support they have shown UAH hockey over the years. Our student-athletes, alumni and our supporters are devastated by this move.”
Despite its geographical and financial difficulties, UAH really had something unique going as the self-proclaimed "Hockey Capital of the South." It still will, albeit for just a few more months.
Like Fairfield, Findlay, Iona, Illinois-Chicago, Kent and Wayne State, which all preceded it into ostensible oblivion, the hockey program at Alabama-Huntsville deserved a better fate.