Today saw news that should make college hockey fans across America and parts elsewhere really upset:
The CCHA has denied Alabama-Huntsville’s application for admission, putting the program’s future in even more jeopardy.
The Chargers are members of the CHA, which is set to disband after the 2009-10 season. The three other members have found other conferences, and UAH targeted the CCHA.
But the CCHA Council, a body made up of athletic administrators and faculty athletic representatives, on Tuesday voted by acclamation to deny UAH’s application for membership.
Well isn’t that nice.
The CHA is disbanding because the other three members of the conference have found more convenient homes for the 2010-2011 season. Bemidji State, an enjoyed program of this blog, is moving to the WCHA with soon-to-be former CCHA patron Nebraska-Omaha. Robert Morris University and Niagara University of the lame-duck CHA will move along to the alive-yet-weak Atlantic Hockey Association.
This situation left Alabama-Huntsville on the outside looking in. Given that they’re the only college hockey program located in the deep south, their program is one that has always raised eyebrows with casual observers of college hockey.
Hell, even long time college fans weren’t always aware of the Alabama-Huntsville Chargers – that is until 2007 when the bottom-seeded Chargers took top seeded Notre Dame to double-overtime in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before ultimately falling to the Fighting Irish 3-2 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Coincidentally enough, it was the same Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids that saw soon-to-be former CHA mates Bemidji State upset Notre Dame and Cornell just this past year in the NCAA Tournament earning them their first Frozen Four appearance as well as the acceptance of the WCHA to join their “exclusive” club of teams.
Fate is one cruel bitch.
What’s fun about this announcement is that the CCHA decided to vote by acclimation so that no one school has to take the heat from the rest of the college hockey loving world for basically sending Alabama-Huntsville’s hockey program out to pasture.
Yes, that’s right, their hockey program is in a very bad spot right now. Other conferences that could have had UAH join up with them have already filled their ranks. That’s not to say that the WCHA was even a possible destination for the Chargers, but at least they were one of the conferences looking to expand.
Atlantic Hockey and the CCHA were it as far as geographic common sense and flexibility go. Atlantic Hockey made their move by bringing aboard the two logical CHA squads in Robert Morris (Pittsburgh, PA) and Niagara (near Buffalo, NY). Both the ECAC and Hockey East are much too far out of the way in the northeast and are set with their number of teams.
UAH is now looking at life, once again, as an independent team. They spent their first year back in Division I hockey as an independent in 1998-1999 but then joined the CHA after that. Previous to that, they were a Division II team for six seasons and a damn good one winning two Division II championships, thus making their jump back to Division I (after spending five years there from 1987-1992 as independents) one that made a world of sense.
Now? Limbo awaits the Chargers. Life as an independent team in Division I hockey is one that doesn’t lend itself well to any kind of success, be it on the ice or financially. Having no conference affiliation means there’s no conference tournament to play in and win a berth to the NCAA Tournament.
Having life as an independent should, ideally, mean that scheduling gets to be easier as you can pick and choose from any of the other 58 D-I schools. Problem with that is, everyone else is playing in a conference and subject to their own conference schedule dominating their weekly lives and having to live by the scraps of open dates the schedule allows to make games with other schools.
D-I football is perhaps the best high profile way we can look at how UAH may have to handle their new lives, should they choose to keep it up. In the past, there had always been a rather large handful of teams amongst the Independent ranks in college football.
Now there are three: Notre Dame, Army and Navy. What these three teams have in common is playing against each other as well as a hearty mix of cream puffs and menacing world beaters. Hell, even Army football gets a game against VMI each year so they’re guaranteed to not go winless.
Obviously Notre Dame sticks out here as the “shining example” of how to be a successful independent program. Then again, Notre Dame football is a beast unto itself having NBC carrying all their home games and a ridiculous legacy that is eternally fellated whether the team is any good or not.
Alabama-Huntsville hockey won’t exactly have any of these luxuries. There is no lucrative television contract to give the school money nor are there well-placed media pundits out there to proclaim the wonder and glory of Chargers hockey. It’s just how it is but the future is certainly very bleak for the sole Division I hockey program in the deep south.
For what it’s worth, the 2012 Frozen Four being held in Tampa, Florida is set to be hosted by none other than the University of Alabama, Huntsville. Given that this location has already been beset by bad press, most of which centered around the owners of the Tampa Bay Lightning bailing out of a college hockey tournament set to be hosted in Tampa last year, Alabama-Huntsville having their program potentially folding before the Frozen Four even arrives in Florida would be a tremendous black eye on college hockey.
For now though, UAH hangs on while the CCHA will have to take their much-deserved lumps for leaving a program out in the cold with little to no explanation:
“The league completed its due diligence of the application for membership submitted by the University of Alabama in Huntsville with careful consideration and discussion of various issues,” CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos said in a news release. “At this time we have chosen to maintain our membership at its current level.
“The CCHA will remain focused on maintaining and strengthening our existing members to ensure the conference’s continued success and long-term viability.”
There’s a lot of buzzwords in there but what this boils down to for the CCHA is that they’re playing wait-and-see, which in this case, amounts to a game of chicken where they’re not risking a damn thing for themselves.
At stake here instantly is the future of Alabama-Huntsville hockey but there are some other things that come into play here. Whether it’s the imminent failure of another of its member teams in Bowling Green or the rise of a program out of the club ranks with a huge name to lend further credibility to both the CCHA and college hockey will remain to be seen.
If the CCHA has the ability to see the future and those situations do arise, I am sure they can also handle the responsibility of having the blood of potentially two (or maybe more) programs on their hands while allowing college hockey to become an even less-relevant niche sport on the collegiate landscape.
A year from now we could be just laughing at all of this as an incredible overreaction when the CCHA votes to allow UAH to join up with them after Bowling Green and other struggling CCHA members all find ways to prove their commitments to college hockey for the future and its all fun and games.
Then again, a year from now we could be looking at this vote to exclude UAH from the CCHAs reindeer games as the first domino to fall in what could prove to be a herd-thinning situation in college hockey.