Alabama-Huntsville hockey remains hopeful about its future, even as it waits for the Big Ten shoe to drop.
Colorado College’s opponent this weekend, the Chargers, are the nation’s only Division I independent. The Central Collegiate Hockey Association rejected the country’s southernmost program’s bid to join the Midwest-based conference in 2009.
Huntsville made the pitch after College Hockey America, down to four teams, including new Atlantic Hockey Association members Niagara and Robert Morris and Western Collegiate Hockey Association newcomer Bemidji State, disbanded following the 2009-10 season.
Now the program remains in limbo as the college hockey world waits for the eventual formation of the Big Ten Hockey League and how that will affect the CCHA and WCHA.
“How that plays out is the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” Huntsville coach Chris Luongo said in a radio interview. “It will represent some upheavals all over college hockey.”
It’s been a difficult waiting game for both fans and the team.
“At the end of the day, the Big Ten schools drive the bus,” said Save UAH Hockey blogger Geof Morris, a Huntsville alumnus. “We’re all waiting for that shoe to drop. We’ve got solid alumni support. General fan support is waning a bit with all the uncertainty.”
That uncertainty also weighs heavily on the recruiting trail.
“It’s absolutely a challenge,” Luongo said. “If the possibility (of league membership) is there or imminent, there will be a positive effect.”
In addition to recruiting, it also makes for a difficult time scheduling home games with foes hesitant to commit to travel because of the cost. The Chargers play 18 of their 30 games on the road. The regular season ends before Valentine’s Day with exhibition games to follow.
Interim athletic director Antoine Bell said the 2011-12 season is already planned out with future dates filling up. Renovations to the Van Braun Center, which has housed the program since it started as a club team in 1979, continue. The school plans to build an on-campus arena/convention center once the team is admitted into a league.
WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said the powers that be will work to keep UAH’s program alive.
“We have such a small number of programs (58) that every program is important to us,” McLeod said.
Huntsville cannot survive over the long term as an independent but the tradition of the “Hockey Capital of the South,” which began after World War II with a population boom brought on by the new rocket industry, continues to grow. Bell said youth hockey is growing so quickly, there is a real crunch to find ice time in "Rocket City."
“We don’t plan on going anywhere,” Bell said. “It’s a traditional program here and we plan to keep it going.”
WCHA waiting on Big Ten league too
The work to put together a Big Ten league is progressing slowly, meaning the effect on the Western Collegiate Hockey Association remains out of the immediate future, the league’s commissioner said Wednesday.
Bruce McLeod said the WCHA, which includes Colorado College, had informal talks with officials from Minnesota and Wisconsin, two members that would leave along with Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association to join Division I newcomer Penn State in a Big Ten league expected to start in October 2014, pending conference approval.
“My sense is they are going to listen,” said McLeod, who visited with Big Ten officials at last week’s NCAA winter convention. “Jim Delany (Big Ten commissioner) has confirmed to me that they will move ahead on a plan to have their own conference.”
The WCHA hopes to setup a nonconference schedule so traditional rivalries, which also draw large revenue-generating crowds, won’t be eliminated and the Big Ten schools can flesh out a 34-game slate with only 20 conference games.
Penn State announced in September that it will field a Division I program starting in October 2012 after a $88 million donation toward a $75 million arena and men’s and women’s scholarships. That gives the Big Ten the six programs it requires to qualify for a conference championship and garner more TV revenue from the Big Ten Network.
Penn State, which has yet to hire a coach, will play as a Division I independent for the 2013-14 before joining the Big Ten. An idea greasing the rumor mill is a 24-team super conference made up of current CCHA and WCHA teams, and independent Alabama-Huntsville, that would be split into four six-team divisions, including a Big Ten grouping.
McLeod said there has been talk of that by some boosters but nothing formal.
“It hasn’t been on anyone’s agenda,” he said.
Big years in UAH hockey history
1979, club program opens play at Van Braun Center
1982-85, Win three club national championship in a row
1996-98, win two NCAA D2 titles over three years, finishing second in 1997
1998, NCAA eliminates D2 hockey; UAH joins Division I as an independent
1999, founding member of College Hockey America with Air Force, Army, Bemidji State and Niagara
2007, reach NCAA Division I playoffs for first time
2009, win final CHA Tournament title, qualify for NCAAs
2010, current season as independent