While the University of Alabama-Huntsville’s hockey program isn’t out of the woods yet, it’s taken key steps to remain viable. The UAH Chargers announced its goals to continue Alabama-Huntsville’s hockey program on “a long-term basis” on Wednesday; this follows a fundraising drive that raised $17 million, with Minnesota Wild goalie Cam Talbot among those involved in that push.
Finding a new conference crucial for future of Alabama-Huntsville hockey program
As Talbot and the school notes, it will be crucial for Alabama-Huntsville to become part of a new conference. Since 2013, UAH played in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, but NHL.com’s William Douglas explains that the WCHA’s future is in flux. Seven teams from the WCHA plan to leave to reform the Central Collegiate Hockey Association for the 2021-22 season.
Talbot noted to Douglas how important those conference concerns are for the continued viability of UAH.
“The biggest thing still, even with the support, we need to get into a conference,” Talbot said. “I think it might be a little bit easier now since we’ve got the money, we’ve got the backing, we’ve got the support from the university, the alumni and everybody. Hopefully, now we just need college hockey to give us an opportunity to get into a new conference.”
UAH aims to remain a rare hockey program
Douglas notes that the University of Alabama-Huntsville represents the only NCAA Division I hockey program in the Southeastern United States.
Perhaps that might help to explain why support for the UAH Chargers goes beyond alumni such as Cam Talbot. Nashville Predators president Sean Henry, Tampa Bay Lightning executive Bill Wickett, and Philadelphia Flyers assistant GM Brent Flahr are part of an advisory board to try to keep the program alive.
Wickett detailed to Douglas why the University of Alabama-Huntsville program means something to teams like the Lightning.
“In Tampa, we have had a soft spot for Alabama-Huntsville since partnering with the university in hosting the 2012 NCAA Frozen Four in our arena,” Wickett said. “As a non-traditional hockey market, we see value in having southern-based college hockey programs and we’ll do what we can to continue to support grow-the-game initiatives wherever they are based. We hope college hockey can enjoy a rebirth of sorts in Huntsville, perhaps serving as the inspiration for others to develop Division I programs as Arizona State recently has done.”
Plenty of challenges ahead for Alabama-Huntsville, but the outlook is improved
Back in May, it looked like the University of Alabama-Huntsville hockey program would be no more. Officials gave supporters very little time to save the UAH Chargers, yet Talbot and others quickly gained support. For a time, the program was saved.
Yet, even with such resounding successes, there were setbacks. Shortly after that early fundraising drive, Alabama-Huntsville hockey coach Mike Corbett resigned.
Looking forward, they figure to face serious hurdles.
Even the healthiest NCAA men’s hockey programs will need to contend with COVID challenges. Consider, for instance, the UAH Chargers’ plan to operate at 30-percent capacity.
A struggling program like University of Alabama-Huntsville could face even greater challenges. Among other things, how easily can they travel amid COVID-19? As a geographically isolated school, that likely isn’t getting any easier. Via their 2020-21 schedule, their first planned home game is slated for Jan. 8 (vs. Ferris State). Before that, they’ll make trips to Pennsylvania and Michigan, starting as soon as Nov. 20 against Robert Morris.
Ultimately, it won’t be easy to keep the UAH Chargers alive, but not for a lack of will or energy. Or money from spirited fundraisers, including alumni such as Cam Talbot.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.