By Ryan Stieg, AllPuck.com
Last week, University of Alabama chancellor Malcolm Portera announced that Alabama-Huntsville would be dropping its varsity hockey program down to club status.
Most people outside of Huntsville, Ala. shrugged their shoulders and didn’t seem to care.
When one thinks of college hockey, they typically go to powerhouse programs like Michigan, North Dakota, Boston University, or Minnesota.
However if you ask people in Alabama that same question, their thoughts turn to the Chargers of Alabama-Huntsville, the only college hockey program below the Mason-Dixon Line.
I first heard of the Chargers when I was a freshman in college. I was rapidly becoming a hockey fanatic and was surprised to see UAH listed as a varsity hockey program when I would go online.
At first, I thought the Chargers were just a weak attempt to expand hockey’s base, like Gary Bettman did in the NHL, but that is not the case.
The Chargers have been around since the late 1970s and have been quite successful. UAH won two national titles at the Division II level, finished runner up once, and made the NCAA tournament twice as a Division 1 team in 2007 and in 2010.
They would play in front of sold out crowds and quickly became the biggest team in town.
That’s what makes what occurred a couple of weeks ago so tragic, even though it had been building up for the last five years.
The Chargers used to play in the College Hockey America conference, but that dissolved two years ago. Of the four remaining teams in the conference, three were able to latch on to other conferences (Bemidji State went to the WCHA while Niagara and Robert Morris joined Atlantic Hockey).
UAH however, was rejected by the other conferences. Even the CCHA, who at the time had just lost Nebraska-Omaha to the WCHA and was stuck at 11 teams, turned up their noses at the Chargers.
For the last two seasons, the Chargers have been an independent hockey team. It hasn’t been easy. When I talked to UAH head coach Chris Luongo over the summer, he felt that the Chargers have been hurt in all areas.
“Recruiting has been really hurt by our independent status, and it was hurt when the independent status was looming,” Luongo said. “We had a ridiculously difficult schedule last season and a lot of that is because of the teams we have to face now. Before when we were in the CHA, we were facing teams that were similar to us, and we were able to recruit fairly well because the league was behind us. We don’t have that anymore, and won’t again until we have a conference.”
Nobody wants to play for them and nobody wants to play them, at least not in Alabama.
The Chargers play only five home series all year and only one remains. So far, they are winless, and last weekend they were dealt back to back shutouts by Ohio State. UAH has been shut out four times this season and gave up seven goals to both Western Michigan and Air Force.
UAH still has to face national powerhouses New Hampshire, Maine, Denver, Miami, and defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth. All of them are on the road.
That isn’t to say that the Chargers are going away without a fight. Even though they got blown out by Air Force, UAH tied Air Force in that same series and have come close to winning. Both losses to Lake Superior State were by one goal as was a loss to Bowling Green.
UAH’s fans aren’t giving up either. There is a movement by private donors to fund the team’s budget and these same donors hope to meet with Governor Robert Bentley to discuss what else is needed to keep the Chargers at the Division 1 level.
When I last talked to Luongo and UAH, the Chargers seemed be in the process of refurbishing the Von Braun Center as well as getting the word out about their program.
“We are working refurbishing our arena which is located four miles from campus,” Luongo said. “We are looking at locker room improvements which would be a huge bonus for us as well as necessary for our future. We also need to educate coaches of the players we are recruiting about what we are as a program. There’s not a lot of informed people in regard to our team and I think it would be a benefit to us to educate them whether that be putting together a packet or flying some of them in for a visit. That way there is more accurate information out there and a more positive buzz about our team.”
The Chargers’ ultimate goal when I talked with them in June was to build a brand new arena to attract recruits and fans.
“Our long term goal is to eventually build an arena on campus, maybe 3,500 or 4,000 capacity,” former UAH Director of Media Relations Jamie Gilliam said in June. “Our current arena is really outdated and it lacks the amenities people like to have these days. We actually were going to build an arena if the CCHA had allowed us into their conference. I think once we get into a conference, we will get a new arena. It’s just a matter of time.”
At this point though, the building of a sparkling new arena to attract D-1 caliber recruits is nothing more than wishful thinking.
The Chargers head to Providence this weekend to take on the Friars which could give them their first victory, and in two weeks, they face Nebraska-Omaha in Nashville. If they can upset the Mavericks in front of a southern crowd, maybe they can get the higher ups in Alabama to allow them to stay at the varsity level. Right now though, they probably just hope they can end the history of Chargers hockey on a high note.