Indifferent Interim President and College Sports Politics Force UAH Hockey to Hang Up Its Skates

This article appeared on Fried Checkin’ on October 24, 2011

The South lost its only Division I hockey organization today when it was announced that the University of Alabama-Huntsville is officially disbanding its team. Some were still holding out for a conference affiliation or maybe for university officials to get their heads out of…the sand, but the inevitable became reality today when University of Alabama System Chancellor and interim UAH president Malcolm Portera sent out an internal memo saying that the team is being “moved” back to club status.

Portera makes it sound as though he’s actually saving the program, which he isn’t. Hockey will still be at UAH, but the hopes of producing any more NHL draft picks like Jared Ross are no more. Yeah, the Chargers are still going to exist, sort of, as a club sport. But as many are quick to echo, it just won’t be the same. Remember: colleges don’t officially support club sports.

UAH’s entire athletic department joined the NCAA in 1985 after originally being founded as a club team in 1979, and since then it has been a seemingly unending struggle for success and legitimacy. The team made the college hockey world sit up and take notice in 2007 when they forced top-seeded Notre Dame to double overtime in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

They were officially put on the chopping block when it was denied admission into the CCHA in 2009 once the CHA — Huntsville’s original conference — announced it was disbanding after its other three members found homes in the WCHA. Then CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos insisted that the conference was focused on maintaining and strengthening its current members, despite the fact that it was set to lose 11 of them in 2010.

I’ll leave sorting out the head-spinning politics of college hockey conference alignments to the professionals, but I’m deeply saddened to see the South’s only hope at developing hockey from the ground up shot dead in its tracks. Bottom line: there was always plenty of room for UAH in the CCHA, but no willingness to make it available. So the organization has been treading water for the past two years as an independent Division I team, and that’s been going as well as you would imagine.

It’s a negative feedback loop: the program can’t grow because it doesn’t have a conference; it doesn’t have a conference because it’s not big enough, but it can’t get big enough if it can’t grow and it can’t grow if…you get the idea. So UAH hockey was allowed to wither and die by college hockey big wigs who thought they knew better and were ultimately more interested in looking out for their own interests.

To say that UAH’s varsity hockey program is…was vital to growing the sport in the South is a massive understatement. It had the potential to produce high end players, but as head coach Chris Luongo said, “Right now a high end player coming from here…they’re not going to come here right now when we don’t have stability. Who can blame them?”

When I talked to Coach Luongo earlier this season he was, like everyone on staff with UAH hockey, in full-on survival mode and more than happy to be candid about the situation. “We’ve put these kids in a position, this staff included…where virtually nothing is on their side. It’s disrespectful to treat them the way that they’ve been treated,” he said.

Even if the team had hoped to court a conference at the last minute with a stellar record, a schedule that can only be described as hellish is making that impossible this season. “People are going to say you’re not winning; that is a fairly ignorant statement,” said Luongo. “Because you have to consider what our schedule is…we may have the most difficult schedule in the country. We have seven of the top fifteen ranked teams, six of them on the road. None of them in our building…to expect UAH to fair well in that from a scoreboard standpoint is ignorant.”

UAH will play out the remaining season, and the college will continue, on Portera’s word, to honor scholarship commitments made to the students (it’s the least he could do). Their last game is on Feb. 25, 2012 against the US National Development Team U-18, an exhibition game originally intended as a means to show off the school’s program to prospective recruits. Adding insult to injury, the team is still set to host the Frozen Four in Tampa Bay next year.

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