For Huntsville City Council President Mark Russell, it was part of the city's identity, along with that of the University of Alabama-Huntsville: a Div. I hockey program, the only one south of the Mason-Dixon line and part of a 33-year hockey tradition in one of the most non-traditional of non-traditional markets.
That tradition didn't end on Monday. But UAH's Div. I NCAA college hockey program did, when UA System Chancellor Malcolm Portera announced the Chargers would be dialed back to being a club program after this season.
"It was unique in the South, and I thought that should have been heavily considered -- not just the dollars and cents," Russell told The Huntsville Times.
"We were the hockey capital of the South, and that was interesting to people."
The UAH hockey program began in 1979 as a club program. For the next three decades, it yo-yo'd through Divs. I through III before moving up to Div. I in 1998 for a second time, after the NCAA eliminated Div. II college hockey. That's where the Chargers remained through this season, making two NCAA tournament appearances in 2007 and 2010.
The slow death of the Div. I program began in between those appearances in 2009, when UAH was left out in the cold, unable to hook up with an NCAA conference. Its coffin was nailed by Potera, despite a substantial effort from alumni and the community to convince university administrators that there could be a future for the program — an effort that continues even after yesterday's expected, but depressing, announcement.
So what killed Div. I hockey at the University of Alabama-Huntsville?
During their Div. I run, the Chargers had been members of the College Hockey America conference, along with schools like Bemidji State, Niagara and Robert Morris.
In 2009-10, the CHA's men's division folded, having decreased to just four teams. Every team except UAH found another conference home. In a stunning decision at the time, the Central Collegiate Hockey Association denied UAH's petition to join their conference, despite needing someone to replace the departing Nebraska-Omaha team. From Sleepless In Michigan back in 2009:
There have been concerns from day 1 about UAH's bid, and that everyone who had gone ahead and added the Chargers to the '10-'11 conference roster should have been prepared for some pushback from the CCHA. Let's not forget that the conference is in a perennial fight to maintain supremacy with the likes of Hockey East and the WCHA, and that the CCHA is probably looking for a "lateral" replacement for UNO. Sadly, UAH is not an equal replacement and is clearly a step down from the Mavericks, which to me is the biggest reason the CCHA wasn't willing to accept the Charger program with open arms.
After that option was off the table, UAH began playing as an independent Div. I team, the only hockey program in the NCAA going it alone. USCHO has a definitive look at the trials and tribulations of that decision, and the Chargers' program, in an Aug. 2011 piece on the team and coach Chris Luongo:
The biggest problem comes when the calendar turns over in January, as most schools are then embroiled in their league schedules and usually have no free weekends to face off with a non-affiliated school like UAH.
"Absolutely," Luongo said. "That's one of the things, and [the schedule's] not done as early as we'd like. It's a little bit of last-minute stuff."
There are also no plans for an on-campus arena anytime soon. Brophy said the 6,800-seat Von Braun Center, which is 36 years old, will continue to serve as the home of Chargers hockey. He couldn't put a price tag on what it is currently costing the UAH athletic department to run the hockey program as an independent, however.
The price tag, according The Huntsville Times: $1.5 million annually to ice a "highly competitive team." Not having rivalry games with conference foes hurt that financial bottom line in game attendance, according to UAH alum and former assistant coach Nathan Bowen.
"You and I both know what kind of rivalries a conference generates. Being the only independent in the country, we lost those rivalries. We lost those games where points matter," he said.
Bowen, director of USA Hockey Operations at Total Package Hockey, had helped lead efforts in the community to convince school administrators to spare the Div. I program once it became apparent that its funding could be threatened.
"When things first came to light, we were hoping the chancellor was just trying to bring some attention to the program. Because the program needed some attention. It needed some financial assistance from alumni and the community. It needed some improvement," he said.
"What we really found out was that the decision had been made a few months ago, and this process in the last few months has just been a checklist of things to be able to report [publicly]. We were never given a chance to help find a solution. That's really frustrating."
The challenge for Bowen and his group was like something out of a sports movie: The underdogs in a race against time to show the suits that the team was worth saving, only to discover the malevolent chancellor had already made up his mind.
"We tried to work with him. We were able to raise over a half a million dollars in pledges over a 3-year period of time," said Bowen of Portera. "We tried to remove as much of the financial burden as possible. We were confident that given the opportunity and given more time, we could have done that. We could have put a business plan in place to do that."
Instead, Bowen believes he was up against someone with little appreciation for hockey or hockey's place in the community.
"That's what we figured as well. We offered to take the financial burden away from the university and nothing really changed," he said.
I understand there is, as he said, "a new economic reality we all face in higher education."
I understand the skepticism that the fresh enthusiasm and monetary pledges during these last-gasp, save-the-program efforts won't fully be there long-term to sustain hockey.
I understand a $1.5 million budget for a hockey team is difficult to justify on a campus with other needs, especially as attendance has dwindled.
I understand that it's really totally illogical and incongruous to have a nationally competitive intercollegiate ice hockey program at a 7,600-student institution in Alabama. Then again, that was a rich part of its charm.
But I don't think Malcolm Portera has ever understood UAH hockey, or UAH, or even Huntsville. He didn't just kick a team to the curb. Portera eliminated a unique identity of this university. He thumbed his nose at influential people in this city trying to save the team.
Bowen also acknowledges the challenges that faced the Div. I program, but agrees: This decision by Portera was made before the grassroots effort was able to pick up momentum.
A grassroots effort to raise money and awareness for Charger hockey fell short in its quest to convince Portera, who will hand over the presidency to Robert Altenkirch on Oct. 31, the team was worth saving. More than $546,000 in private donations over three years had been pledged to support the program, but the new-found revenue wasn't enough to sustain a "highly competitive program," according to Portera.
"The NCAA data suggests that the median that is raised by a Division I hockey program is $89,000 per year," Portera said. "Two ADs said to me that the best measure of the amount of money you can raise in a community to support a collegiate hockey program is what history suggests; what has been done in the past. The NCAA data does not suggest that it's possible to support a program on contributions."
Bowen believes this decision was part of a larger pattern of disregard for the program by Potera.
"When we had an initial meeting with the chancellor, he told us we only averaged 72 students per game in the previous year. We did some digging and we found out that all but two of the home weekends were during holidays or breaks, when the students weren't on campus," said Bowen.
The indignant administration, the financial burdens, the lack of a conference home and a lack of rabid enthusiasm from fans and students … all of it contributed to the end of UAH's Div. I program.
The plans are to play as a club program beginning next season — a self-funded team, much like it was when the Chargers began playing 33 years ago.
But Bowen's not giving up the fight. The new president, Robert Altenkirch, helped bring the New Jersey Devils to their home in Newark. Maybe he's more sympathetic to the cause.
"We're not done with this. We'd like to work with the new president and see if there can be a 3-5 year plan for this program," he said.
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