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Friday, January 18, 2013

Charging On

Jan. 17, 2013 will be a day the folks in Huntsville, Ala., will celebrate on a timeline from their "Important Dates in Alabama-Huntsville Men's Hockey History" list.

For it was on this date that the Western Collegiate Hockey Association announced that UAH had been accepted into the league as its tenth member for the 2013-14 season.

So the newly-configured WCHA next year will include Minnesota State, Bemidji State, Alaska Anchorage, Michigan Tech, Bowling Green, Northern Michigan, Lake Superior State, Ferris State, Alaska Fairbanks and Alabama-Huntsville. 

The Chargers are former members of College Hockey America, a league that at one point also included Bemidji State, Robert Morris, Findlay, Niagara, Wayne State (Mich.), Army and Air Force. But after the CHA dissolved when Army, Air Force, Robert Morris and Niagara left for Atlantic Hockey, Bemidji State was accepted into the WCHA and Findlay and Wayne State dropped their programs, UAH has been without a conference affiliation since the end of the 2009-10 season.

And in NCAA Division I men's hockey parlance, competing as an independent is akin to the 1970's power ballad proffered by Eric Carmen, "All By Myself."

Playing as an independent is problematic on several fronts, not the least of which includes scheduling games.  Then there's the opportunity to participate in the NCAA postseason tournament (an opportunity which doesn't exist if you play as an independent). And that leads to the most important issue of all - which is that a program in this situation faces a true challenge in convincing student-athletes to come to the school in order to be successful.

UAH, which won NCAA DII championships in 1995-96 and 1997-98 and went to the NCAA DI tournament in 2009-10 as the champions of the CHA, citing financial issues and lack of a conference affiliation, announced a year ago that it was going to decommission the program to the club hockey level. But a change in leadership at the school's presidential level changed the dynamic and the program was given a reprieve last spring with the idea that a final push toward league membership would be needed to keep things going.

The Chargers, who play in the recently-renovated Von Braun Civic Center in downtown Huntsville, hired former New Jersey Devil assistant coach Kurt Kleinendorst as head coach prior to the start of the 2012-13 season. And while not every detail regarding UAH's pitch to the WCHA has been revealed, it is known that there's a UAH travel subsidy involved, along with a proposed 20-game league schedule (not sure if this is doable for next year with teams already having scheduling agreements in place) and a membership fee. And while seven of nine "yeas" were needed for UAH to gain membership once a vote of league members took place, apparently the vote was unanimous.

Minnesota State's relationship with UAH dates back to 1988-89 and follows a similar arc in that both schools at one time were members of NCAA Division II before reaffiliating to Division I (MSU in 1996-97 and UAH in 1997-98). MSU, too, played as a NCAA Division I independent for a period of six years from 1992-99 before gaining membership in the WCHA.

Sounds a tad familiar, doesn't it? Not unlike the folks in "the Hockey Capital of the South" today, back in 1998 Don Brose, Don Amiot and the rest of the hockey folks in Mankato were dancing a similar jig.

Congratulations, Chargers.  A warm welcome to the WCHA.

It's great to be a Maverick!